MURRAY – In closing her speech Saturday morning during the dedication of the front lobby of Murray High School in honor of her father, Dr. Russell E.P. Howard, Mary Kay Howard Bowden offered these words.
“I am certain that there are many students who like Russ Howard who walk through these halls and face seemingly impossible obstacles. We hope that this gift and his story will be a resource of encouragement to those with little or no hope and to those determined to reach their full potential,” Bowden said of how she and two siblings pledged $25,000 for the lobby naming rights inside the renovated campus.
Her father’s story, a fraction of which is written on that plaque, should serve as inspiration to anyone who reads it. Simply, as his daughter expressed Saturday, he is a prime example of how adversity can be overcome on the road to success, particularly in the medical field.
It started when he was a child. First, he developed nephritis while in the second grade, causing him to be in great pain and miss a lot of classes. He managed to not fall behind, though, and passed the second grade “with flying colors,” as Bowden said.
Then came the third grade and an even tougher opponent – cancer. As if that were not enough, he also was faced with shingles, the measles and the mumps, as well as a broken arm.
“He missed a lot of the third grade and he certainly missed being a healthy child,” she said, her next comments drawing laughter from the large crowd of family members, longtime friends and fellow ‘67 graduates, in town for annual homecoming festivities. “However, his illness brought forward some positive opportunities. For example, confinement to his home gave him ample time to plan his next practical joke on his big sister, Judy, while she was at school. He also relished the opportunity to watch ‘Bonanza’ on Sunday nights while Judy had to attend her second church service of the day.
“Then, of course, he quickly learned how to craft that heart-melting expression which helped him gain more sympathy from his parents and, in turn, a free pass from his daily chores.”
All of that aside, Bowden said he also exhibited a strong work ethic, which showed during his high school years.
“Murray High School was Russell’s launching pad for a successful career. His teachers fostered his skill for learning and bestowed a great appreciation for comprehension of the applied sciences,” she said, then listing how his schooling in Murray paid dividends later. “He attended Murray State University, then earned early entry to the University of Louisville School of Medicine. He then was appointed chief fellow in cardiology in Chicago at Northwestern University, then he was distinguished fellow of both the American College of Physicians and the American College of Cardiology. His work was published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.”
However, Bowden said, without question, it was his work in his hometown that gave him his greatest satisfaction, though it would come with the ultimate price paid. He was the founder of the Murray Heart Center, “which provided world-class care to the community he loved most,” she said. He also would be chief of staff at Murray-Calloway County Hospital, president of the Calloway County Medical Society and the first medical director and founding board member of the Angels Community Clinic.
Then, at 41, cancer confronted him again, this time a rare form that left doctors giving him no more than six months to live. Bowden talked with pride of how her father fought, producing perhaps the most meaningful chapters of his legacy for battling against the odds, and why there is value in the fight.
“As he faced his mortality once again, he made our family a promise that we’ll never forget. He said, ‘I’ve been given six months to live, but I’ll overcome this and I’m going to show you how a Howard fights,’” she said. “Indeed, he kept his promise. He moved to Houston, Texas temporarily to receive chemotherapy and radiation while we were in middle school. A few years later, he was diagnosed with myeloid leukemia that exhausted him even more, but he exhausted every resource to live another day.
“He endured 26 major surgeries, several tracheostomies, severed vocal cords, the loss of his ability to swallow and countless long-term hospitalizations, but he survived much longer than the six-month prognosis. In fact, he fought bravely and without complaint for 12 more years (before that fight ended on Aug. 6, 2003). Even as his health deteriorated, he maintained the highest level of medical care to his patients. He was a dedicated physician fighting for his own survival.
“His illness gave him an opportunity to live a more purposeful life. And most importantly, and in my father’s own words, his suffering gave him the ‘glorious opportunity to be humble, broken and in complete desperation of his Lord’s saving grace.’”
Murray Independent School District Superintendent Coy Samons said the district is grateful for the Howard family’s generosity.
“On behalf of the Murray Independent School District and our board, I would like to thank the Howard family for their generosity and for continuing this district’s tradition, pride and excellence,” Samons said. “Murray Independent is a very special place, and that was evident the first time I ventured out here a few years ago (after serving as superintendent in Paintsville in the far-eastern part of the commonwealth), and it’s just a reflection of this community and especially its alumni and the commitment to providing not only the best public education in the commonwealth, but in the country.”