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A Life: William C. Nugent, 1949-2021; ‘He believed in immersing himself in whatever he did’

  • Bill Nugent and his wife, Susan, on their boat, Escapade, last summer on Lake Champlain. (family photo) family photographs

  • Bill Nugent with his bicycle. His yearbook photo from 1975 at Albany (N.Y.) Medical School. (family photo)

  • Bill Nugent and his son Ross at a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center picnic for heart surgery patients in the late 1970s. (family photo) family photograph

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/4/2021 5:48:30 PM
Modified: 4/5/2021 12:13:34 PM

MERIDEN — On the same day in September for years on end, a man from Ohio called into cardiothoracic surgeon Bill Nugent’s office at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Nugent had performed emergency surgery on the Midwesterner for an aortic aneurysm that materialized while he was visiting the Upper Valley. Every year on the surgery’s anniversary date, he made a point of calling Nugent.

“I know Dr. Nugent is busy,” the man would start out his conversation with Marcia Lowes, Nugent’s administrative assistant for 25 years. “But I’m just so thankful. He saved my life.”

For more than 30 years, Nugent, or “Nuge” as many colleagues knew him, was a larger than life figure in the Upper Valley medical community. And at 6 feet 8 inches tall, Nugent was a towering presence to begin with — whether he was in the operating room or on a ballroom dance floor, which is a story in itself.

“He was a man of many diverse interests and talents, but first and foremost was a superb physician with an incredible work ethic,” Mark Greenberg, a DHMC cardiac electrophysiologist, wrote in a recent tribute. “He impacted, for the better, countless patients whose lives were improved or saved by his skills, and countless colleagues whose lives were enriched by working with him.”

Nugent, who retired from DHMC in 2016, died Jan. 31, following a hard-fought battle with cancer. He was 71.

“He didn’t sit still and his mind was always working,” Lowes said. “He was so passionate and energetic about his work. That’s not to say that he didn’t give me some gray hairs.”

Like the time Nugent called her at home on a Sunday as she was sitting down for a birthday dinner. He was in Chicago, preparing for a speaking engagement early in the week when he realized that he’d left the binder with his notes in his office.

Lowes, who is now retired and lives in Pennsylvania, broke the news to her family that the birthday celebration would be delayed. She drove to the hospital in Lebanon, found the missing binder and prepared it for overnight shipping.

Anything for Nuge.

Nugent grew up in Morristown, N.J., about which he once joked in an interview that “if you can be happy in New Jersey, you can be happy anywhere.” In 1984, after finishing up a fellowship at the University of Michigan, Nugent joined the surgical staff at what at the time was Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover. (The hospital, now DHMC, moved to Lebanon in 1991.)

For 22 years, Nugent served as DHMC’s section chief of cardiothoracic surgery, a specialty that covers just about everything chest related, including the heart, lungs and esophagus. He also helped develop a separate thoracic surgery department.

In 1987, Nugent was a catalyst behind what became known as the Northern New England Cardiovascular Disease Study Group — a regional collaborative focused on improving the quality of care and outcomes for heart patients.

Back then and to this day, hospitals are reluctant to share information with their competitors, but Nugent pushed to break down the walls between institutions. He was a believer in the benefits of visiting other hospitals to observe how different cardiac staffs operated.

“Sometimes you need an outside pair of eyes to see how to do things better,” said Larry Dacey, a longtime colleague of Nugent at DHMC. “Bill was really into innovation.”

John Sanders, a retired DHMC cardiothoracic surgeon, said Nugent was “all about sharing ideas.”

Faced with a difficult case, such as an aortic dissection, a surgery that is often done on a moment’s notice, Nugent didn’t hesitate to call a colleague for assistance. “He never let his ego get in the way,” Sanders said.

Colleagues described Nugent as a natural leader who went out of his way to make everyone from clerical staff to residents to veteran surgeons feel appreciated. “He made us a family,” Lowes said.

Robin Clark-Arbogast was a 25-year-old traveling nurse when she arrived at DHMC’s cardiac intensive care unit in 1994. Nugent, wearing blue jeans and a jean jacket, bounced around like a “walking tornado,” she said.

He often dropped in on ICU nurses staff meetings just to listen and hear what people had on their minds. “He treated the nursing staff with huge respect,” Clark-Arbogast said.

In 2009, Clark-Arbogast was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When Nugent heard the news, he stopped by her house, not far from where he lived in Meriden. “He just came flying in the door, hugged me and picked me up in the air,” she said.

“Don’t you worry,” he told her. “We’ve got this.”

Nugent was an “advocate for me,” frequently checking in with her doctors throughout her cancer treatments, said Clark-Arbogast, who has since beaten her disease and become a nurse practitioner.

Nugent’s career at DHMC spanned 32 years, but his interests went far beyond medicine.

He took up turkey hunting, mostly for the challenge of mastering the calls that attract the wild birds while sitting still for hours in a blind. “I don’t think he ever shot a turkey, but he took it on full bore, like he did everything else,” Sanders said. “Bill never did anything halfway. He believed in immersing himself in whatever he did.”

As a member of the Grafton County Fish and Game Association, Nugent took up competitive pistol shooting. “Like a lot of things he did, Bill wasn’t trying to be the best at it, but he wanted to make the best of the experience,” said William Daugherty, who traveled with Nugent to pistol competitions throughout New England.

If someone showed up at a competition having forgotten their protective ear or eye gear, Nugent “always had spare equipment that he’d loan,” Daugherty said. “He showed a kindness and a desire to improve whatever it was that he was part of.

Nugent had a “thirst for life” that took him in many different directions, Daugherty said.

A lifelong interest in opera — cultivated by his mother, a middle school music teacher — led Nugent to serve a term as president of Opera North, a performing arts nonprofit based in Lebanon.

Laura Dintino, a family friend, once admitted to Nugent that she was “not really into opera,” but it didn’t faze him. “The next thing I knew, I was listening to 17 discs that Bill gave me on the history of opera,” Dintino said. “Bill had a great mind and he had to keep feeding it with new ideas. It was infectious.”

A swimmer in college, Nugent joined an Upper Valley swim club, participating in 5:30 a.m. practices before heading to the hospital. He took up flying, earning his private pilot’s license. Other hobbies included fly fishing, golf and cycling.

Then there was ballroom dancing. He persuaded his colleagues that they and their partners should join him and his wife, Susan, for weekly lessons at a White River Junction dance studio.

He saw it as a way to build camaraderie outside the hospital. Besides, it could be fun, he told his co-workers. “Bill was remarkably graceful for a big guy,” said Sanders, the retired DHMC surgeon.

After Nugent retired in 2016, he and Susan joined his oldest son, Will, on a boating trip. Will Nugent, a trauma surgeon in New York, is an avid sailor who encouraged his father and stepmother to dive back into boating.

The Nugents, who were married for 30 years, once owned a small Boston Whaler that they took up and down the Connecticut River.

But “Nuge” had something bigger in mind this time around. The couple bought a used 42-foot boat that Susan referred to as a “floating Winnebago.”

The couple made Lake Champlain their second home. They kept the “Escapade” at Bay Harbor Marina in Mallets Bay.

Tony Fay, a retired prison guard from Connecticut, was getting his boat ready one day when he saw a “giant man walking down the dock.”

Nugent introduced himself to Fay as his new neighbor. They quickly became good enough friends for Nugent to admit that when it came to his boat, “he had no idea how to drive it,” Fay said.

But like so many other times in his life, Nugent welcomed the challenge of learning something new. “He was such a smart, patient guy that it worked out,” Fay said.

“He loved the physics, the mechanics, the problem solving” that comes with boating, Will Nugent said. “It became his obsession, like so many other things had in his life.”

Last July, Bill and Susan were on Lake Champlain when he began experiencing trouble with his back. He suspected it might be a slipped disc.

An MRI led to a much different diagnosis. Nugent was suffering from a small-cell cancer, which “tends to spread long before symptoms appear,” Sanders said.

He never stopped fighting the disease, but when it became apparent that it was terminal, “he just wanted to get back on his boat,” Susan Nugent said.

In September, the Nugents returned to Mallets Bay for what turned out to be their final day on Escapade. At the end of the day, as Nugent maneuvered the boat toward its slip, a crowd of 30 people had gathered on the dock. They began clapping, not stopping until Nugent had completed a flawless docking.

“They were happy to see their friend who was so sick,” Fay said, “doing the thing that he loved.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.


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