The Wyoming Doctor Who Saves Eyes
(Zeke Scher, The Denver Post (Sunday Empire), February 20, 1972)
Last spring when 11-year-old Shirley Canfield was brought to the building at 110 W. 22nd Ave., just off Main Street in downtown Torrington, Wyo., she had spent four years sitting in darkness.
She couldn’t close her eyes–or look sideways or up and down–because part of the eyelids and the eyeball had grown together. Her father, Floyd, a cook, hoped desperately that Dr. Loran Brown (Bud) Morgan might help the child.
For four years in California doctors had been unable to relieve the freak malady that struck Shirley after a penicillin injection for tonsillitis. That was in Santa Rosa in 1967. Shirley’s eyes lost their nourishing tears and within six months the normally smooth and moist lining of the eye became like facial skin with blood vessels growing to it.
Besides being in extreme discomfort, Shirley was limited in her vision. She was barely able to count the doctor’s fingers held 12 inches from her face. Seeing required light, and light was painful.
Fate brought both Shirley and Dr. Morgan to Wyoming.
Torrington is a southeastern Wyoming town of 4200 residents. That makes Bud Morgan a small-town doctor. Husky and tall (6 feet, 190 pounds) with ever-present cowboy boots (they’re good for his arthritic back) and an easy-riding voice, he could pass for a local rancher.
Morgan is an ophthalmologist, an expert on the eye. Looking into Shirley’s tortured face on that initial visit, Dr. Morgan saw dense corneal scars in both eyes. He was reminded of other eyes, other times, in a crowded civilian hospital in Vinh Long, South Vietnam…
Dr. Morgan was nearing 50 and his specialized practice was growing daily when the intensity of the Vietnam war in late, 1966 brought home to him the predicament of the men, women and children there without medical aid.
His wife and two children winced when he mentioned that the American Medical Association was sponsoring Volunteer Physicians for Vietnam. But they understood when he canceled appointments and signed up for a two-month assignment in the spring of 1967.
To many of the volunteer physicians, the horrors of life and death in backward, war-torn Southeast Asia prompted a never-again oath after the first tour of duty. Seeing 40 patients a day and performing as many as 15 operations a week was a backbreaking chore under the best of hospitals conditions. Vinh Long was not the best.
But Dr. Morgan went back for another two-month tour in 1968. And again in 1969, and for one month in 1970. (Of 27 ophthalmologists in the program, only three made two tours, none made three and only Morgan four.)
Bizarre injuries and diseases that the medical books barely mentioned were a daily problem in Vietnam. And each time Morgan “lost” an eye by removal, he “died a little.”
Many of the serious eye cases began as simple infections that had not received adequate treatment. Two accepted principles of eye treatment are to protect the eye from irritation by the eyelid (the edge can act like a razor blade on an infected area) and to provide constant medication. The eye is notorious for resistance to penetration by medicines.
It was obvious to Morgan that a lot more Vietnamese would lose eyes unless some way could be found to protect the damaged eye ball and get continuous medication to it.
The only practical way of getting concentrations of drugs into the eye is by constant, steady flow of the medicine on to the cornea. But how do you get people to stand still, much less keep their eyes open for such lengthy treatment?
Out of sheer desperation during his third tour in Vinh Long–in February 1969–Morgan molded a device to cover the eyeball, figuring it could be used to clean the eye and keep it clean just before surgery. He had long been familiar with the common contact lens–he prescribes them and wears them himself. His on-the-Viet-spot invention was a larger lens, something like the first contact lens of the 1940’s that covered the entire eye.
At one side of the lens he made a small hole through which a polyethylene tube was attached. The tube fed Lactated Ringer’s solution, a medicine-carrying fluid, into the eye to bathe it and wash out debris, bacteria and dead cells. A towel caught the fluid running off the patient’s face.
“I called it TLC,” says Morgan. “That was for Therapeutic Lens Corneal–not tender loving care, although it could have been.” [Note: The lens is now called the Morgan Medi-Flow Lens.]
It worked. Rapid relief of pain was one of the dramatic effects in almost all cases. When he brought his invention back home, its possibilities became even more impressive.
Brian Novacek, for example. In June 1970, 7-year-old Brian was playing with gunpowder on the floor of his garage. He lit it, his eyes were open at the instant of the explosion and Brian suffered severe corneal burns with large amounts of gunpowder buried in the tissue.
The child was unable to keep his eyes open because of pain, making the use of medicines almost impossible. Dr. Morgan’s lens was slipped in place over each eye and the fluid started.
After two hours of irrigation, Brian’s pain was gone. The charred skin and gunpowder could be seen washing free from the cornea. At the end of 24 hours, both corneas were clear.
An explosion at the Holly Sugar Co. Plant in Torrington threw lime into the eyes of two employees. The lenses were used on them for 90 minutes and neither suffered eye damage.
A 2-year-old boy, playing in the kitchen, poured a bottle of detergent over his head–and into his eyes. After an hour of lens-ing at the office, the child was happily into mischief around Dr. Morgan’s cluttered desk.
In all these cases weeks of hospitalization would have been necessary without the benefit of the lens and permanent eye injury could have resulted.
But what about Shirley Canfield–four years later, blind, scarred, tortured?
Shirley’s father in January 1971 moved the family from California to accept a job in Lusk, Wyo., 57 miles north of Torrington. He heard about Dr. Morgan and his “magic” lens on a local newscast.
After reciting the history of her eye problem, the father pleaded: “I just want you to use your lens on her.”
Morgan admitted Shirley to Goshen County Memorial Hospital in Torrington. Her condition was diagnosed as chronic Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a disease identified in 1922 but with no accepted method of treatment.
The same lactated Ringer’s solution was used to bathe Shirley’s eyes with the lens, just as in emergency cases. Morgan was as anxious to see what happened as the Canfields.
They saw miracles. After two days of the lens bath, the corneal blood vessels and skin had regressed to the point where Shirley could recognize pictures of large objects. The treatment continued for nine days. By then Shirley was coloring books and watching TV….and smiling.
Morgan fitted her with glasses that gave her good near vision. He prescribed drops to be placed in each eye every hour, day and night, and the Canfields followed the order religiously, waking Shirley throughout her sleeping hours for the medicine. Subsequently Morgan designed a silicone rubber headband to be worn at night for continuous medication while sleeping.
Last October Morgan received a letter from the Canfields who had moved back to California. It contained a fifth grade arithmetic paper on which Shirley had scored 100. Her mother wrote,”I thought you would be interested to know Shirley is doing really well. We are so proud for all you have done for her. You must have been sent from heaven. Every day it seems she is doing better and seeing better….”
Loran Morgan may have come from heaven but the birth certificate says Pipestone, Minn., October 14, 1918 the fourth of five children born to Mabelle and William Morgan. As far back as he can remember, Loran wanted to become a doctor.
Perhaps it was admiration for an uncle, Paul Brown, who was a physician and surgeon near Chicago and visited Pipestone each summer. Perhaps it was the sad experience when he was 14 of seeing his father–a big, strong outdoorsman and a bank executive–die at 49 of meningitis, just three days after suffering a minor barbed wire wound while he and Loran were rabbit hunting.
Perhaps it was Rollin Moore, his biology teacher, who went on to become a physician. Or perhaps it was Fred Noble, his friend since kindergarten and his college roommate who became a dentist.
Whatever it was, Morgan was graduated in March 1943 from the University of Minnesota Medical School and came to Denver’s St. Luke’s Hospital as an intern. An associate of Morgan at that time recalls him well:
“He was a really good intern, and lots of them weren’t. St. Luke’s normally had 16 but there were only three interns then–most were in the service–so they really worked hard. In fact, he worked too blasted hard.”
He was working so hard that it took him three months to ask an associate for a date, and then another seven months to marry her–Beth Ashburn, newly registered nurse from Torrington, Wyoming, and the daughter of a railroader-homesteader.
Morgan had been commissioned a first lieutenant in the medical reserves while in school in 1941 and in December 1943 was ordered to active duty and was shipped to Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, for medical officer training. Beth followed him and they were married in January, 1944 in Carlisle Barracks.
For ten months Morgan received Army training, including parachute jumping. The newlyweds were at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, when he was ordered to Europe. Beth returned to Torrington for the duration, except for a visit to St. Luke’s delivery room on October 24, 1944 when their daughter was born. Daddy at the time was “somewhere in Europe” with the 40th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion.
On March 24, 1945, 300 of Morgan’s unit made the initial jump across the Rhine River into Germany. The toll was high–50 killed, 100 wounded.
“Two of my aid men were killed and two were wounded”, he recalls. “That left ten aid men and one doctor–me–to take care of 100 casualties in the field.”
Morgan can remember that date because it’s on his Bronze Star citation. Morgan’s unit got an “arrowhead” for being an advance detachment. He also received the combat medic’s badge and three combat stars.
In January 1946 the 27-year-old doctor was discharged as major and he made his first visit to Torrington. The town on the North Platte River, near the Nebraska border, didn’t overwhelm him and he mapped plans to practice medicine in Colorado or California, or return to school to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology.
The post-war flood of ex-GIs into the classroom dissuaded him from returning to college. Empire Zinc Company of Gilman, Colorado, high in the Rockies northwest of Leadville, hired him as company doctor. For two years the Morgans Lived in Gilman and he did everything a country doctor does.
By then he was ready for any change, and even Torrington looked better during the summer of 1947 during a visit with Beth’s family. Fate took a painful hand: Morgan required an emergency appendectomy–his own–and Dr. John B. Krahl of Torrington did the carving.
While recuperating, Morgan was invited by Dr. Krahl to join him and Dr. O. C. Kidebeck in creating a medical clinic in Torrington. Empire Zinc lost its company doctor to Torrington’s new clinic. Beth, meanwhile, made another visit to St. Luke’s delivery room on August 17, 1948, their son was born.
Morgan was used to hard work and the 1950’s in Torrington brought him plenty of it as a general practitioner. While the town is small, the county has more than 10,000 residents and the medical clinic draws patients from a wide area of Wyoming as well as parts of Nebraska, South Dakota, and Colorado.
The pace began to take its toll on Morgan, partially because of his own attitudes. It became increasingly difficult for him to live by one of his guiding principles: Never give anyone advice unless you’re really qualified to give it.
Patients would go to big city specialists who’d recommend heart surgery or a kidney transplant and then come back to Morgan and ask his opinion. He says: “It became impossible for me to live under those conditions where people had that much confidence in my opinion and my opinion really was not worth having on the subject.”
In October 1956 after a period of not feeling well, Morgan checked into the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver and visited Rose Memorial Hospital for a series of tests. About 3:30 one morning he got the message: chest pains that told him to stop the rat race or else. Medical experts told him the same thing.
At 37, Loran Morgan dropped his general practice. Retirement was out of the question. It was a little late, but why not go back to school and specialize? A fellow ex-Minnesotan in Torrington helped him with the decision.
Dr. Herman R. Anderson, a native of Little Falls, Minnesota, came to Torrington in 1949. An ophthalmologist, he was smart enough to hang a sign that said “eye surgeon”.
Anderson (he retired last month at 70) suggested that ophthalmology might be the answer for Morgan. Ophthalmologists can pick up more neurological diseases by looking into the eye than any of the other non-neurological specialists. And best of all, you don’t have to get up at 3 A.M. to deliver babies.
“I wasn’t going to do it, though, unless I could come back to Torrington and practice,” Morgan says. “I asked Dr. Anderson if I would be welcomed back.”
“Come on back,” Anderson replied. “You’ll be welcome.”
In January 1957 Morgan returned to the University of Minnesota as a student for three years of specialized training. He rented out his Torrington house to farmer-rancher Delphi Nash who, like many other acquaintances, didn’t expect Morgan to return to the small town.
“We didn’t think an expert like that could make a living here” says Nash, a Wyoming legislator in the 1960’s and now Torrington Chamber of Commerce manager.
Three years later to the month–on January 11, 1960–eye-doctor Morgan came back to Torrington. As promised, Anderson welcomed him. In fact, Anderson turned over all his surgery to Morgan and even sold him all his instruments.
Morgan also became chief consultant in ophthalmology for the Veterans Administration Hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Every Wednesday he’s there.
He attended professional seminars at least four times a year to keep up-to-date. In his “spare” time he served as Wyoming department commander of the American Legion, alternate national executive committeeman for the Legion, and secretary of the Wyoming Medical Society. To keep on schedule, he became a pilot and obtained his own small plane.
Morgan proved the skeptics wrong as Torrington increasingly became a medical center and his active files rose to 7,500 names. His staff numbered eight and a new building was constructed to house the latest in equipment. (On Dr. Anderson’s retirement, he purchased his building for a lens laboratory.)
Since Vietnam and the therapeutic lens, Dr. Morgan has been in great demand as a speaker, and again he’s pushing himself to tell the world about this new hope to preserve vision.
Wyomingites quickly raised the question about the lens: If it works on humans, why not on horses, cattle, and even dogs? Why not, indeed? Just west of Torrington is the Veterinary Clinic run by Drs. John Simons, Douglas Booth, and Michael Hand. Dr. Morgan and his optician, Boyd Freed, went to the clinic and molded lenses for a number of ranch animals.
I watched Dr. Morgan slip the lens in the right eye of a Thoroughbred horse and let a liquid flow over it. The horse remained calm and apparently enjoyed the soothing treatment as much as a human.
At Morgan’s request, the University of Minnesota undertook research to determine the optimum flow and best type of solution to get maximum penetration of medicine into the eye.
“They’ve already determined the optimum rate of flow over the cornea,” Morgan says. “The real problem I want them to solve is the time it takes to get a certain amount of medicine into the eye.”
In September 1970 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) in Las Vegas, Dr. Morgan explained his successful treatment of bacterial infections of the eye using the lens. At the 1971 meeting Morgan was in the audience when Dr. James Allan of Tulane University told the academy: The Morgan Lens is the method for treating such bacterial infections.
“To hear that you have found the approved way to handle infection is about all that one doctor can expect in a lifetime,” says Morgan.
But an even greater thrill was in store for Morgan in San Francisco where he was invited by the University of California School of Medicine to speak at a seminar last December.
In his talk he detailed the strange case of little Shirley Canfield. The critiquing doctor–Dr. A. Edward Maumenee of Johns Hopkins University and AAO president–had complimented him with a four-word comment: “What can I say?”. Then Morgan suddenly saw two familiar faces in the audience.
“Gentlemen,” Morgan announced. “I’m happy to say that sitting right over there is the young lady I’ve just been talking about–Shirley Canfield and her father.”
The Canfields, living in nearby Sacramento, had learned of Morgan’s appearance and came to see him. The doctors surrounded Shirley to get a glimpse of the eyes that a year ago were painfully closed in the dark. There was a round of applause–and one of life’s most gratifying moments for the ex-GP.
Back in Torrington, few residents realize what Morgan means to the community economically. Del Nash says people come “from all over” to see Morgan, perhaps as many as come in for the sales that make Torrington Wyoming’s leading cattle market.
On the verge of exerting a worldwide influence in ophthalmology, if he hasn’t already, Bud Morgan remains a humble person–and his cowpoke patients help keep him that way.
Last month, a 40-year-old rancher was in the office getting fitted for glasses when he remarked to Morgan, “My friend Mrs. Shafer said she knew you when you were an M.D.” After a short, thoughtful pause, the rancher asked: “You give it all up for this?”
If that weren’t bad enough, many of his former patients from the 1950’s will say–in all seriousness-“I used to go to him when he was a doctor.”
And there was the little girl who came up to him and said: “Your boots are sure pretty. But don’t you have any dress shoes?” The ophthalmologist proceeded to explain to the child how cowboy boots can help relieve an arthritic back condition: “It bows in the middle of your back and sticks out your stomach.”
Morgan, arthritic back and all, still has some ambitious hopes. He’d like to go back to Vietnam and get a much-needed eye program going. He’d like to see a new Torrington hospital, with a special eye section. And he’d like to see millions of eyes saved through the use of his lens.
The lens opened a whole new world for Shirley Canfield and may do the same thing for many more. The capital of this bright new world may well be Loran Morgan’s Torrington, Wyoming.