Dr. Vernon Cooley ran the Boston Marathon 25 years ago while a student at Harvard Medical School. The recent terrorist bombings there hit close to home.
"I lived just two blocks from where the bombs went off. I ran right by the spot. The victims were taken to hospitals where I had worked. Some of my old colleagues and friends treated them," said Cooley, a Park City orthopedic surgeon, shaking his head. "Boston is an amazing town and I love it. The people there are wonderful. This was a total shock."
He falls silent.
Cooley insists he's been lucky and has led "a very fortunate life." That's what the nationally-renowned orthopedic surgeon most wants people to know about him.
An unpretentious man, he's quick to credit others for his good fortune. "I work with great people in my office that I admire and respect and I have the greatest patients in the world, he says.
The oldest of Valerie and Vernon Cooley's seven children, he remembers his childhood in Salt Lake City as "nice and quite simple." He remembers many good times at home with family and friends.
His first encounter with Park City came in the 1970s. "My best friend's family had a working ranch up here. He and I would spend summers working on the ranch, haying, taking care of the horses and doing odd jobs," he recalls. In his late teens, he got a job as a laborer building the Park Meadows Golf Course. In high school, he skied at Park City Mountain Resort and at a small resort called Park West, now Canyons.
At age 16, Cooley was introduced by his father to a new neighbor, Dr. Tom Rosenberg. That meeting and the friendship that followed would shape his life. Dr. Rosenberg was a pioneering Utah orthopedic surgeon in the late 1970s and early '80s when arthroscopic surgery was in its infancy. When Dr. Rosenberg invited the curious young Cooley to observe a knee surgery (it was still allowed in those day), he jumped at the chance. "I was absolutely fascinated and decided then and there that I wanted to be a knee surgeon too," he says.
Cooley graduated from East High School in Salt Lake City and laid plans to become a doctor and knee surgeon. But dreams were dashed and plans put on hold when, at age 19, he was diagnosed with a cancer that had metastasized and spread to his lungs and lymph system. The following year was the most difficult of his young life. "I went through surgery and a lot of chemotherapy and came out the other end completely cured. That was 30 years ago. I was lucky and I'm still ticking."
With a clean bill of health, he enrolled at the University of Utah and earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1986. The prodigious student went on to attend Harvard Medical School in Boston and earned his degree as a Doctor of Medicine in 1991.
"I still don't know how I got into Harvard," he says. "I think maybe they just needed someone from Utah to fill their quota."
From 1991 through '96, Cooley interned and was in residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1995 he married Rebecca, a lifelong friend he'd reconnected with in Salt Lake City a year earlier.
"We'd known each other distantly almost all our lives. When I found out she'd moved back to Salt Lake from Houston, I called her for a date," he explains. "We went out and had dinner in Heber. I had to leave the next day to return to my residency in Seattle. We spent as much time as possible talking on the phone and traveling back and forth from Seattle to Salt Lake to see each other. Our courtship was short and we were married in March of 1995."
The Cooleys have five children, including two sets of twins (Abby and Grace, age 15, and William and Henry, age six) and Sarabeth, age nine. "My wife and children are the most important thing to me in my life," Cooley shares.
The move back to Utah came in 1996 when Dr. Cooley took a fellowship in sports medicine and arthroscopy at TOSH - The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Salt Lake City. "I knew I needed the fellowship to get me where I wanted to be and doing what I wanted to do," he notes.
Since '96, Dr. Cooley has progressed spectacularly in his field. In 1997, along with Dr. Rosenberg, his mentor and inspiration, he opened a small clinic near the new Park City Post Office. "I always said I didn't want to practice exclusively in a big city," says Cooley. "I much prefer the small community feel both in Park City and in Heber."
From those humble beginnings evolved the highly-regarded Rosenberg, Cooley and Metcalf orthopedic clinic in Park City and TOSH, now with campuses in both Park City and Salt Lake. Though Dr. Cooley spends the majority of his time at the Park City Medical Center, he's also a staff surgeon at the Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake and the Heber Valley Medical Center.
A few years ago, Cooley and Rosenberg performed knee surgery on golfer Tiger Woods. That led to an invitation last year to play golf with Woods at the Augusta course before the Masters. Cooley and his wife stayed at the Augusta home of another pro golfer, good friend and part-time Park City resident Mark O'Meara.
"After the Masters, Woods texted me," Cooley chuckles. "He wrote, 'It was a blast playing golf with you. Thank God you're a great orthopedic surgeon.' I guess you can read between the lines." He notes an irony here. "I started out doing construction work on a golf course over 30 years ago and I'm still doing construction work, only on golfers' knees."
Dr. Cooley says he enjoys working with his Park City patients but observes they're sometimes overzealous. "The great thing and the bad thing about Park City is that we're an active, athletic community and we're always pushing it. I'm always having to tell my surgery patients not to push too hard during the recovery process. It's a blessing that they work so hard up here, but they often overdo it."
If you want to stay out of his office, Cooley says, stay in shape all the time. "It's important to have a consistent year-round program. A little exercise almost every day goes a long way."
Dr. Cooley practices with longtime colleagues Rosenberg, Metcalf, Lind, Beals and Olsen. He's collected a loyal cadre of patients over the years, many of whom have become close friends as well. He has earned the respect of his colleagues and the staff at Park City Medical Center, where he was recently named "Physician of the Quarter."
"I've been blessed with a great family and friends and a job that I love," Cooley says. "What more could any man ask for?"
Steve Phillips is a Park City-based writer and actor. Send your profile comments and suggestions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Favorite activities: Skiing, golfing, driving his 1968 Porsche 911
Favorite foods: Italian.
Favorite reading: Automobile and golf magazines and medical journals.
Favorite bands: U2, with Led Zeppelin a close second.
Bucket list: Travel to Africa, Australia and South America