By Nate Cernosek and Scot Macdonald
Dr. Robert Harris understands exactly how meaningful the choice to give back can be in another person’s life. As a medical student at USC 50 years ago, he was the recipient of a scholarship designated for men who had lost their fathers young.
After a long and eventful career, he and his wife Bonnie gratefully paid this generosity forward with the creation of the Harris Family Scholarship Fund, which benefits medical students at the top of their class, and the Harris Family International Clerkship Fund, which enables medical students to participate in clinical rotations abroad. But it was the story of two colleagues from his days as a surgical resident at USC that inspired Dr. Harris to give once again.
Forging a lifelong friendship
Dr. Jim Bonnet and Dr. Gary Robbins both joined the USC Surgery Residency program in 1971. Residents are scheduled into various surgical specialties, and the two found they had been scheduled together each time they rotated services.
“Although he was two years older and smarter, we became fast friends,” Dr. Bonnet said. “Gary was an excellent technical surgeon and had a brilliant academic mind.”
The two bonded over the rigorous challenges of the program. However, without additional support, the stress of those challenges could have ended Dr. Bonnet’s career before it began.
It was the intervention of the program’s chief surgical resident, Dr. Robert Harris, that made the difference.
“Jim was talking about quitting the surgery program,” Dr. Harris recalled. At this period of his residency, Dr. Bonnet had been working at Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center every day for ten months without a single day off.
“I was just gutting it out,” Dr. Bonnet said. “I was exhausted, and I told Bob Harris, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’”
“We spent quite a bit of time talking,” Dr. Harris said. “I convinced him he was too good a surgeon and too good an addition to USC to quit.”
He told Dr. Bonnet to take two weeks off. Dr. Bonnet took that advice, spending the time hiking at Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks. He returned from his trip refreshed, and soon after, he and his friend Dr. Robbins devised a plan that would define the course of both their friendship and careers.
The road to Kalispell
Near the end of their last year, Dr. Bonnet and Dr. Robbins decided it would be fun if they could practice together after their residencies. They looked at different opportunities across the West, and while Dr. Bonnet was in Sydney, Australia, furthering his vascular surgery training, Dr. Robbins discovered Kalispell, Montana. There were no peripheral vascular surgeons in Montana at that time. “We would be it,” Dr. Bonnet said.
Dr. Robbins completed his training first, moving to Kalispell in 1977. Dr. Bonnet arrived one year later. They would practice together for the next 30 years.
“Ours was a unique, long, and most rewarding friendship,” Dr. Bonnet said.
Dr. Robbins’s active surgical life was cut short by an emergency coronary bypass in 2004, which eventually led to a cancer diagnosis and his retirement. A few years later, in 2009, Dr. Bonnet underwent head and neck cancer treatment.
Shortly after, they once again came together to devise a plan.
Dr. Bonnet and Dr. Robbins had both developed a great deal of appreciation for their formative years as surgical residents. They understood as well as anyone the value of attending national conferences and presenting research to subspecialty societies, and that there was not always funding for these special opportunities. They also knew firsthand of the demands placed on residents, and how that stress could spill into their personal lives.
“We drafted identical language to be included in our estate plans,” Dr. Bonnet said. After their deaths, a portion of each of their estates would create the Robbins and Bonnet Endowed Resident’s Benefit Fund at Keck School of Medicine of USC. The fund would exist in perpetuity solely for the benefit of USC trainees in various areas of surgery.
The first death came too soon in 2014.
An enduring legacy
Dr. Robbins died of a heart attack at age 71, marking the end of a long and successful surgical career. The first installment to create the Resident’s Benefit Fund from Dr. Robbins’ estate came in 2018.
“Gary’s contribution is, in every way, a realization of the decision we made together years ago,” Dr. Bonnet said. “We wanted to endow a fund which would help carry forward the many special gifts we received from the USC Department of Surgery and the many USC alumni who were so important in our training and our success.”
Dr. Bonnet has a vision for the continued growth of the endowment and encourages other former trainees at the USC Department of Surgery to give. “If every prior trainee gave to the endowment, it would be a way of saying thank you, and also provide a welcome to new trainees coming into the program,” said Dr. Bonnet.
Shortly after the fund was made public, it received its first donation when Dr. Bonnet took a call from an old friend. Dr. Harris had heard about the endowment that Dr. Robbins and Dr. Bonnet created, and he wanted to join them in giving back.
“Having Bob join us in the endowment brings joy to me and I know that if Gary was with us, he would repeat the same thoughts,” Dr. Bonnet said. “We hope that all former trainees of the Department of Surgery at USC will consider joining the three of us in building the fund into a meaningful addition to the Department of Surgery.”
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