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Doctor finds antidote for stress on stage

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Most of the time, he's a calm, mild-mannered physician, a prominent Charleston gastroenterologist.

Sometimes, he turns into somebody else entirely. A king. A president. A Wild West hero. Whatever the character, he slides easily and believably into the role, dancing, singing and orating with all the finesse of a 3 seasoned Broadway star.

On Friday, Tim Harper opens a run with the Light Opera Guild as Horace Vandergelder in "Hello, Dolly!"

A community theater veteran, he once had his eye on a career in music, probably as a choral director. An epiphany intervened. It was a calling, he said, a spiritual message pulling him to medicine.

Everything goes back to diabetes, the disease he has managed for 53 years. Diabetes taught him discipline, kept him tranquil, composed.

On stage, he unleashes the emotion.

Through medicine and acting, he found the perfect fit.

He's 62.

 

"I grew up in South Charleston. My mother worked in the Legislature for Paul Kaufman, and she did teletype at the federal building. My dad was chief accountant at the post office, but we also ran a hardware store and he managed a drug store.

"We had Harper's Hardware on Bigley Avenue. On Saturdays, I threaded pipe and cut glass and sold nails and sold seed. We had a post office in the back and I sold money orders and stamps.

"We did a Christmas play in sixth grade at Montrose Elementary. That was the first time I was ever on the stage, and I enjoyed it. I was always musical. In the third grade, I started taking piano from Rev. John Newton, minister of music at the First Baptist Church in South Charleston. I took piano through ninth grade. I played tuba and baritone horn in the band.

"India Harris had a big influence on me. She was choral director at South Charleston Junior High. I was the ninth grade choral accompanist. I was playing piano more then.

"I played Scrooge in junior high in a production of 'Scrooge.' I think that's where I first got the bug. All through high school, I did Children's Theatre plays. I was Scrooge every year in high school.

"I first ran into Tom Murphy [former Kanawha Players director] in 10th grade, and he was another mentor through high school. So was Dave Stern with the school show choir.

"As I got toward the end of high school, I thought I would major in music, so I went to West Virginia Wesleyan as a music and history major. I ended up declaring in music and stayed in music until the end of my junior year when I made the big decision to switch.

"What got me thrown into medicine was, in the fourth grade, at 9 years old, I became a juvenile diabetic. I've been on insulin for 53 years. From age 9 on, I grew up around the hospital.

"Diabetes gave me a drive and made me very disciplined. I learned quickly to avoid sweets and I exercised. I never used it as an excuse. It just made me want to do more. In high school, I did everything. I was president of the Honor Society, president of the county student council and was an Eagle Scout.

"The Wesleyan Chorale went to Europe for eight weeks to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Methodism in Austria. When I got back, I had five weeks of summer left, and I needed a job.

"My endocrinologist, Steve Artz, asked if I wanted to work in his nuclear medicine lab at Charleston General. Two summers before that, I had worked as an orderly at Charleston Memorial. But I still hadn't decided on medicine.

"At the end of my junior year, I was planning to go to Southern Methodist University and work on a master's degree on choral conducting. I was sitting in the practice room one day and I thought, 'This isn't fun anymore. It's work.' That was the big a-ha moment.

"It dawned on me that maybe music and drama was fun, but having to earn a living doing it was stressful. Medicine is certainly stressful, but musical and theatrical things are great stress reducers.

"At the time, I was majoring in music but minoring in chemistry. The only thing I needed was eight hours of physics to apply to med school. I did that my senior year. WVU accepted me based on me passing physics.

"I did three years of internal medicine here. The third year, I was rotating with Bill McMillan, and he influenced me to go into GI. I liked it because I could tailor my practice so it's not demanding as far as night calls.

"I wasn't keen on coming back to Charleston, but I got a call from George Toma and Eric Mantz who said they needed somebody in gastroenterology at Thomas Hospital, and that's what I ended up doing.

"Being in a community-based hospital instead of CAMC is better for my lifestyle because I didn't get tons of consults and in-hospital work. My practice has been geared to outpatient work since day one.

"I've got three partners, and we split up on-calls evenly. This month, since I'm doing a show at the end of the month, I took more calls the first two weeks of October.

"I've been in at least 15 Guild shows and a multitude of KP shows. We've had some interesting things happen. Kanawha Players was doing 'Auntie Mame,' and the lady who played Mame couldn't remember her lines, and she would come in during the wrong scene.

"On one occasion, Don Solomon and I were on stage waiting on her to appear, and she never showed, so we sat on a couch on stage and ad-libbed for 10 minutes. We talked about the stock exchange, the Yankees and Broadway shows. We went on and on until she finally walked on.

"On the Guild's third production of 'Fiddler,' the gentleman playing the priest had a heart attack after the first week of the show. Nina [Pasinetti] called me on Monday and asked if I could do his part by Friday. I started learning the lines, and they blocked me into the scenes on Wednesday. We ran through it on Thursday and I performed that Friday. Fortunately there weren't a lot of lines, and I knew the show because I'd done it before.

"Another mentor was Henrietta Marquis, a physician and an actor. We did a show for Kanawha Players called 'Foxfire.' Tom Murphy was in it and Jim McIntire. Those were three of the best actors this city has ever seen. It was one of the best things I've ever done. Chris Ringham [former KP director] came back from Louisiana to direct it.

"I've played Charlemagne, Charles the Great, three times with the Guild. He's a larger-than-life character. I get killed. I don't know how many shows I've been killed in. I played Jud in 'Oklahoma.' In college, in 'Carousel,' I played Jigger and he gets killed.

"Charles the Great gets killed and comes back to life. He gets stabbed in the back. The first time, we used a real knife. We had a big piece of foam and cardboard to make a shield on my back, and he stabbed the knife into that. It was a little scary. The next time, we used a collapsible knife.

"This is the first time I've been in 'Hello, Dolly!' Vandergelder is a great character. He's bossy and doesn't realize Dolly is reeling him in like a big fish. She's going to marry him and he has no clue.

"I do theater when I can, and it's fun. But medicine has been a blessing. I feel privileged and honored to take care of patients. When I had that revelation, it was sort of a calling to go into medicine, truly a spiritual calling. I grew up in a very religious environment.

"I still sing in the choir at Christ Church Methodist. One of the most enjoyable things I do is sing with a chorale group called Opus.

"I took pipe organ lessons all through high school from Paul Saylor at Calvary Baptist, and I took pipe organ my first year in college. I used to substitute some as an organist, but you have to practice to do that, and I just don't have enough time.

"My kidney is still working and my eyesight is OK. But I did have four heart bypasses four years ago. I was in the second week of rehearsal for a Guild show. I'd had a negative stress test two months before. I got one every year because my father and brother had coronary artery disease. I always passed with flying colors.

"They had just introduced a CT angiography test where they can look at coronary arteries under a CT scan. I had that done as a fluke. The doctor said I had four blockages, all 80 percent. He said I needed to go to surgery the next day. Rick Brown ended up taking my role in the show.

"Part of that goes back to when I was first diagnosed with diabetes. The doctor said, 'This is a lifetime disease. You are going to have to roll with the punches and discipline yourself.' If I don't get stressed out, my blood pressure stays under control.

"Colleagues say I never raise my voice or get angry, so acting is a big outlet. Acting allows me to totally forget who I am. I try to become whatever character I'm playing.

"I'm probably going to retire from medicine in three to five years. Vicki and I travel a lot now. We especially enjoy going to New York and seeing shows."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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