Drs. Robert Nesbit and Charles Wray

Legendary Friendship

Longtime vascular surgeons Drs. Charles Wray and Robert Nesbit have established a fund to support resident education.

Show, not tell.

That’s how some former residents who trained under Medical College of Georgia vascular surgeons Dr. Charles Wray, ’59, and Dr. Robert Nesbit remember it.

“Dr. Nesbit gave us a lot, including the ability to make decisions while he was standing there listening to reinforce that the decisions were correct,” says Dr. Charles Howell, ’73, chair emeritus of surgery at MCG. “And Dr. Wray wouldn’t say much, but when he did say something, you’d better listen.”

After dedicating their careers to showing medical students and residents how to practice the art of surgery, Nesbit and Wray are still at it. The two men—often described as “legends” in their field—recently established the Nesbit Wray Endowment in Surgical Education.

The fund will help support educational opportunities for residents that are necessary, but not already covered as part of the program—a need both men saw firsthand, both as residents themselves and later as they taught residents. This could include attending national meetings of various surgical societies, for example, says Wray, to give them invaluable “exposure to a wider view of what’s going on in the world.”

So it was an attractive proposal for the longtime collaborators in the OR and good friends when Howell approached them with the idea. And it was a simple decision to say yes: “By the time he talked to me, Dr. Wray had already agreed to it,” Nesbit says with a grin.

“I always liked to help people and do things,” says Wray simply.

While both men traveled different paths to get to Augusta, they had that interest in helping people in common, along with a love of MCG, surgery and teaching.
Wray, who was born in Union Point, Georgia to a textile mill family, came to MCG because it was a good choice financially. It would turn out to be a good life choice: He never left. He had a strong mentor in Dr. William H. Moretz, then chair of surgery and later the fourth president of MCG. Moretz guided Wray toward vascular surgery and provided an example of service that Wray has followed, accepting roles as vice chair of the Department of Surgery and twice serving as interim dean of the medical school.

It was Moretz who would bring the two men together. Moretz was a graduate of the residency program at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. Nesbit also trained there after attending the University of Rochester Medical School, under one of the pioneers of carotid surgery, Dr. Charles Rob. Moretz and Nesbit ran into one another at an alumni reception, and Moretz invited him to take a chance on Augusta. He never looked anywhere else, later adding chief of surgery at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center to his roles.

As educators, their lessons were memorable. “Dr. Nesbit was just a fountain of knowledge,” says Howell. Nesbit’s expertise in revascularizing the carotid artery — knowledge he gained from Dr. Rob and passed on — impressed the young Howell. “I still remember a case we had involving a patient who had total occlusion of the aorta just below the renal arteries. He took that case on and we did it, and the patient did very well. If you had a total blockage of the main artery to your legs and lower body — to fix that back then, that was pretty impressive.”

Wray too had an impact. “He was a surgeon’s surgeon. People called on Dr. Wray when a patient had a very bad surgical problem,” says Howell, who admits being intimidated by the surgeon early on when he was a young resident. “There wasn’t much he couldn’t do …but he was the first one to tell you that everybody doesn’t need or respond to surgery.”

As the only two vascular surgeons on staff for much of their time together, Nesbit and Wray found an easy camaraderie. For these men of a certain age, it’s hard for them to put into words the friendship they have. “We think alike,” says Nesbit, with Wray adding, “We didn’t have to talk very much … and we didn’t have many arguments. We saw things in similar ways.”

More recently, it’s rare for them not to meet for dinner every couple of weeks. Although they began their time at MCG about a decade apart, both “retired” from surgery at about the same time.

That’s “retired” taken loosely, since Nesbit has volunteered a good 50 hours a week for the past 19 years teaching first- and second-year medical students, teaching a history elective to about 40 students a year and running the surgical clerkship. “If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it,” he quips in response to a question about his lengthy volunteer service.

Meanwhile, at about the same time, health issues led Wray to step back from the OR and focus instead on an administrative role, working as vice president of clinical activities until his retirement from the institution in 2001. Since then, he and his wife, Dr. Betty Wray, ’60, former chief of the Section of Allergy and Immunology at MCG, have remained active in the MCG Alumni Association, both serving a term as president. It’s been common to see one or both of them presiding over events and welcoming alums back during Alumni Weekend and other activities.

Today, Wray in particular is pragmatic about the future. “I have three potentially fatal diseases,” he says wryly. When he was a boy, he dreamed of becoming either a minister or a doctor. Physician won out, but it’s worth noting that both professions focus on helping people. Which is what the Nesbit Wray Endowment in Surgical Education is designed to do, for years to come.

For his part, “Training residents was one of the most gratifying parts of the job,” says Nesbit. He’d like to see the benefits from the endowment assist the resident program and the institution that has been proud to call him “one of our own” — according to former MCG Dean Peter Buckley — even though he is not an MCG graduate. “Augusta’s been a good place in every way. I’ve worked for and with good people, good residents and good students. It’s made it fun to do, and it’s been a good fit.”

To give to the Nesbit Wray Endowment in Surgical Education, visit mcgfoundation.org, select Donate Now, and search for “Nesbit Wray Endowment.”

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