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JOSEPH N. BELL

Doctor's Life as Exciting as Those of Famous Patients

January 27, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

A few months after Billy Carter returned to Georgia from Long Beach in 1979, pointed firmly down the road of sobriety after undergoing treatment for alcoholism, Dr. Joseph Pursch--who headed the treatment center that turned Billy around--received a call from President Jimmy Carter inviting Pursch to spend a night with the Carter family in the White House.

Pursch arrived in Washington late one summer afternoon and for the next 16 hours--except when the household was sleeping--had the direct and exclusive attention of the President of the United States.

They talked and watched the TV news together, shared dinner with two of the Carter children, Chip and Amy (Rosalynn was attending a meeting elsewhere), watched a movie and then talked far into the night about alcoholism and drug problems.

"He literally interviewed me," recalls Pursch, "and even took a copy of a speech I was going to give to bed with him. When we said good-by the next morning, he had annotated the speech to remind him of some questions he wanted to ask.

"As I was leaving, he shook my hand and said, 'I want once more to express my gratitude for what you did for my brother. I didn't think any stranger would or could do that.' When I looked puzzled, he explained: 'Doc, that's what one does for his kinfolk .' And, you see, that's how he treated me when I visited--as kinfolk."

Joe Pursch has become kinfolk to a lot of people over the years, but none more so than Billy Carter. In the newly released book "Billy," one of the major characters in the latter half of the book is Dr. Pursch, who was then head of the U.S. Navy's Long Beach Alcohol Rehabilitation Hospital.

Ever since he left that post in 1980, Pursch has been a resident of Orange County and has been in private practice here much of that time.

It should be noted up front that Pursch is my friend and whatever is said here may be influenced by that bias. But the story of how he got into a position to help Billy Carter--and Betty Ford and Buzz Aldrin and former U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) among thousands of other famous and not-so-famous people--is every bit as exciting as the history of any of the people he treated.

Pursch grew up in Yugoslavia where his father owned a meat processing plant near Belgrade. In 1944 when Pursch was 15 years old, it became clear that the Russian army was going to win the race into Yugoslavia, so several hundred children in Pursch's community were sent to Czechoslovakia to keep them out of Russian hands. In a labor camp there, Pursch was told that his family home and business had been confiscated and his parents executed by the Russians.

As he was moved about from camp to camp in the last year of World War II, Pursch had a pass to freedom concealed in the sole of his shoe: an American birth certificate. His parents had emigrated briefly to Chicago and he was born there before they returned to Yugoslavia when he was still an infant.

When Pursch saw his first American occupation troops, he showed them his birth certificate, and they contacted an uncle in Detroit who paid for his passage.

In 1946, Pursch arrived in New York on a troop ship, penniless and unable to speak English. A New York social worker gave him money for a ticket to Detroit with enough left over to buy food on the train. Instead, he bought a stack of magazines which he couldn't read.

"I sat there all the way to Detroit," he recalls, "looking at a Joe Palooka comic book and feeling very American."

His uncle got him a job as a high-rise window washer, "so I started at the top of American industry at 90 cents an hour."

Within six months, he was proficient in English, including street idioms that he picked up listening to conversation and reading signs on public buses.

Within a year, he owned his own window washing company and was saving up for medical school. He also found out that his parents were alive, and by 1950 he had enough money to get them out of a concentration camp and bring them to the United States, "where they became the most fervent Americans I've ever met."

Pursch worked his way through premed in Detroit, then through medical school at Indiana University.

Along the way he married, started a family, learned to fly and bought an airplane which he sold to buy a trailer to house his family while he went to school.

After interning in Detroit he joined the Navy, became a flight surgeon, and during a two-year tour of sea duty on an aircraft carrier began to discover that "the No. 1 illness aboard our ship and probably in the world was alcohol abuse." He also developed a powerful interest in psychiatry, "because most of the patients I was seeing had emotional and mental problems."

When he was assigned to the Navy hospital in Bethesda, Md., he began to combine the practice of psychiatry and substance abuse treatment that very quickly made him the Navy's leading expert in this field and a pioneer in this type of treatment.

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