If your child needed surgery and you didn’t have private insurance, for a long time Dr. Donald Buckner was the only one who could help you in South Florida.
That’s why Buckner had a one-year backlog of patients in the 1980s. For non-emergency surgeries like hernias, he had a five-year backlog, his sons said.
Buckner, who served as a pediatric surgeon at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital for 40 years, died on Sunday of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He would have turned 87 on Thursday.
In his years of work, he operated on thousands of children, his colleague, Dr. Kenneth Goodman, estimated.
“This was his life,” said Goodman, director of UM’s Bioethics Institute. “Don was the icon for medical professionalism in South Florida.”
Buckner worked seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day. His son, David Buckner, described him as “a machine.”
“He would get up at 4:30 in the morning and get over there,” he said. “Then he’d be there late into the night, because he wouldn’t leave until he was sure that the kids he had operated on were stable.”
“The most recognizable sound in our house as children was the sound of his beeper going off,” said his other son, Michael Buckner.
It sometimes went off at 2 or 3 a.m. No matter the hour, Buckner would wake up and rush over to the hospital to perform surgery.
But Buckner is missed not only due to the volume of his surgeries, Goodman said, but because he was “a sweetheart when it came to working with their families.” In Buckner’s home are stacks of letters from patients that wrote back to him years later, thanking him for saving their lives as children.
Nearly all of Buckner’s patients were indigent, and without health insurance, his son David said. His father chose to move from private practice in his hometown in Louisville, Kentucky, to South Florida to aid a population he saw as underserved, Michael said.
“The single most important thing he cared about was his patients,” David said.
When Buckner wasn’t performing surgery, he educated many on medical ethics, serving on UM’s Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy and the ethics committees at Jackson Memorial and UM hospitals.
At Jackson, he and philosopher Dr. Tomi Kushner held weekly “ethics rounds” in the neonatal critical care unit to discuss ethical issues arising in cases of severely impaired newborns.
“He recognized that that was an unmet part of what he and other surgeons were doing,” his son Michael said. “It’s not just about the practice of performing the surgery and the technical aspects, there’s a human aspect.”
Buckner earned the University of Miami’s George Paff Award for Teaching Excellence four times, and the UM Housestaff Physicians Association’s Outstanding Teacher Award three times.
At 75, Buckner retired from performing surgery, only because back problems prevented him from continuing to bend over an operating table. He continued to teach ethics after his retirement.
In addition to his two sons, Buckner is survived by his daughter, Leigh. A funeral will be at noon Friday at Beth David Congregation, 2625 SW Third Ave., in The Roads, followed by a graveside ceremony at Mount Nebo Cemetery in Flagami.