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Beloved doctor dies

Chad Abraham
Dr. Harold Whitcomb, better known as "Dr. Whit" to generations of Aspenites, died Thursday.
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Dr. Harold Whitcomb, a beloved prince of Aspen whose scepter was a plunger, and a man who friends said had an unending compassion, died Thursday at his home.Prostate cancer was the cause. Dr. Whit, as everyone called him, was 79.Friends say it’s impossible to sum up his radiant personality. It is also difficult to underestimate how many people knew Whit and were impacted by him. Dr. Barry Mink was Whit’s partner for 30 years in their medical practice on Main Street. “He was very unique in some of his approaches. His patients just loved him because he cared so passionately about them as a human being,” Mink said. “He would do everything in his power, sacrifice his own personal life in ways to get the time devoted to his patients.”He could really get people well. People would light up and sparkle and feel almost immediately better,” Mink said. “I know it sounds corny, but it was true: He’d walk into the room, and everybody that was his patient just seemed to get better as soon as he was there.”Dr. Robert Oden and Whit were best friends and together started a clinic in Aspen. Oden, who was in a Florida hospital Thursday, released a statement through his wife, Nancy.Oden and Whit first met in 1962 at Sardy’s hardware store across from the Isis Theater. They would later sing in the Aspen Community Church choir together and became godfathers to each other’s children.”At that point they both were bachelors and were like brothers,” Nancy Oden said.

Whit “was a doctor who cared about his patients, and when someone was ill, time meant nothing to him,” Robert Oden said. “I will miss having him as part of my life.”There seemed to be no end to his activities outside medicine. Dressed in a ratty raccoon-fur coat, Whit would go to the homes of his political enemies every Christmas and serenade them with carols, said Su Lum, senior sales representative at The Aspen Times.Whit delivered Gail Holstein’s first child 34 years ago, and they remained friends since.”He put in so much time and effort and care and love for his patients that everybody who was treated by him loved him,” she said. “I think it would be impossible to not love that man.”His skills at diagnosing illnesses were uncanny, those who knew him say.”He could take somebody who had been through every kind of antibiotic, say, and specialist, and he could just look at them and say, ‘That’s not right, why don’t you try this?'” Holstein said. “And he nailed it so many times. He was a healer more than just a doctor. He healed the whole person.”Whit was a detective when it came to medicine and wasn’t afraid to experiment, usually on himself. He was the first doctor in the Roaring Fork Valley to practice alternative medicine, friends said.”A lot of what he did was magic because if you saw Whit, you felt like getting well,” Holstein said.Georgia Hanson, executive director of the Aspen Historical Society, said, “He was the most caring individual I ever met.”He had an empathy for people that was just astounding. It was almost guru-ish.”

Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis called Whit his hero. The doctor was the county coroner when Braudis first joined the sheriff’s office as a rookie deputy.”My first dead body that I was involved in was with him,” he said. “He taught me everything that he could about certain types of death, forensics stuff, and also did my annual physical for me.”He later became Braudis’ doctor and was the jail physician.”He had a spirit of life that I’ve rarely seen in other men or women,” Braudis said. “He danced, he sang, and he worked hard when he got here.”His diagnosing ability made him “like a witch doctor,” he said.Whit delivered virtually every baby in the valley for decades and had an office on Main Street for 35 years. He also helped get Aspen’s new hospital built. Whit memorably led the Wintersköl parade down Main Street holding a plunger.He arrived in Aspen in the late 1950s, two children in tow after a divorce. Helping to raise his kids was his sister, Marty Sterling, and her husband, Ken. The Sterlings ran the Heatherbed Lodge at Aspen Highlands, which is where they all lived.He was an expert on the stand-up bass and played in a ragtime band called the Dirty Old Men that was much in demand. Mink said he even occasionally performed for his patients. In addition to music and singing, he loved rafting and camping. Whit, who was inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame in 2000, also married couples.”He did it all,” Braudis said.Whit mentored Phyllis Bronson, a biochemist and 25-year colleague of his. He also gave her away when she was married, and was godfather to her son.

“I was a young scientist very interested in nutritional biochemistry, and he was just getting interested in that part of medicine,” she remembered. “It was more important to him that the patient be visible than [his] ego being visible. He was always about rapport with his patients, and I think that’s why so many of them got well – other than the fact that he was a brilliant, inquiring medical mind.”She said he was a pioneer in incorporating alternative treatments into regular medical practices. He was also one of the first doctors to really look at the whole person in treating patients, Branson said.But it’s not whether a doctor practices traditional or alternative medicine, or a combination.”It’s fundamentally about the person you’re dealing with,” Branson said. “And Whit always saw the person first.”She said she kissed him goodbye a week ago Thursday night. “I said, ‘Good night, sweet prince.'”Branson said Whit was peaceful at the time of his death Thursday morning. He had slipped into a coma Sunday.He is survived by his wife, Polly, and four children, Michael and Deirdre, whom Whit fathered in a previous marriage, Dorothea, whom Polly had from a previous marriage, and Oliver, whom they had together. Whit was preceded in death by a daughter, Bereana, whom Polly also had from her previous marriage. They were all raised by Whit and Polly.A public memorial is scheduled for 4 p.m. March 11 at the Hotel Jerome.”He was a character. He was larger than life and so funny,” Branson said. “And so humble and so brilliant.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com


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