Life stories

Life stories: Trauma surgeon schooled underprivileged young men

CorrespondentJune 9, 2013 

Joseph A. Moylan


  • Dr. Joseph Anthony Moylan Jr.

    Born: July 14, 1938, in Hartford, Conn.

    1960: Graduates from Fairfield University.

    1962: Marries Ann Carole McGurkin Moylan.

    1964: Graduates from Boston University School of Medicine.

    1969-1972: Serves in the U.S. Army as a surgeon.

    1975: Begins work at Duke University Medical Center, remaining there the rest of his career except for a brief stint from 1994 to 1997 at the University of Miami.

    2002: Durham Nativity School welcomes first class.

    2007: Retires from Duke University Medical Center.

    2010: Becomes an attending surgeon at the Durham VA Medical Center.

    Dies: May 16 in Durham.

After decades spent improving the field of trauma surgery, during which he and his wife raised six of their own children, Dr. Joseph Moylan felt compelled to do more.

So in 2002, the Moylans founded the Durham Nativity School. With its focus on shepherding underprivileged youths from middle school through college, Moylan remained heavily involved with the program and the students from its inception until his death last month.

Of his many accomplishments, his family said, the school was by far his proudest. Ten young men were awarded their diplomas on Friday, bringing the program’s total number of graduates to 68.

Each one of these students mattered a great deal to Moylan, whose life was built around being of service to others, his family said. He never gave up on anyone.

Moylan grew up in Hartford, Conn. As family lore has it, he was accepted to college only because someone at Fairfield University owed his parents a favor. He graduated as valedictorian, and headed to medical school.

Moylan focused on trauma surgery. His career largely took place at academic institutions. He spent three pivotal years during the Vietnam War as an attending physician at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research at Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston.

Maj. Moylan focused on burn victims and worked under Dr. Basil Pruitt, an army colonel. Pruitt admired Moylan for his decency in dealing with others. Moylan drew the best from his students and staff.

“He was always serious of purpose, but we wasn’t vindictive or vituperative when he corrected someone. It was always with a great deal of empathy,” Pruitt said.

After the war, Moylan headed the burn unit at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before settling into a 30-year career at Duke University Medical Center. During his career, he refined resuscitation therapy for burn patients by proving that the use of hypertonic salt solution could sometimes cause more harm than good, Pruitt said. He also improved the methods for identifying and treating patients with smoke inhalation.

At Duke, Moylan served as the chief of trauma service, which he initiated, and as professor of surgery. During his tenure, Duke University Hospital became a level-one trauma center, the Life Flight helicopter program was initiated, and Moylan lobbied for the state’s motorcycle helmet law.

“Joe did not do anything out of selfish ambition,” said Mary Pickard, his medical secretary for more than 10 years.

He was always asking others how they were doing, and if he could do anything to help when things weren’t going well.

“He valued others, and in his listening he found humility,” Pickard said.

In Durham he raised his growing brood. It was through one of his four sons that the seed for the Durham Nativity School was planted back in the 1980s.

While attending Durham Academy, his son, Kiernan Moylan, sought the expertise of Russell Blunt, the nationally renowned track coach who worked for decades at Durham’s Hillside High School. In exchange for Blunt’s help, Kiernan Moylan agreed to tutor his teammates.

One teammate in particular became a regular at the Moylan dinner table, and the family was troubled to learn that he had made it well into high school without learning how to read. His athletic ability had trumped his education, and despite Kiernan’s last-ditch tutoring effort, the Hillside student could not secure an SAT score that would make him eligible for college.

While Moylan’s son met his goal by running track at the college level, the other student turned to gangs. When he was shot and killed two years later, Moylan, who had seen years of gang violence while running the trauma department at Duke, felt compelled to respond to the senselessness of such loss.

As his surgical career began to wind down, Moylan and his wife of 51 years, Ann Moylan, toured schools throughout the country looking for a model that would suit Durham’s needs.

The Nativity Miguel Network of Schools seemed the perfect fit, and in 2002 the Durham Nativity School accepted its first class of 10 sixth-graders.

Incoming classes now average 15 students, said Dr. Dan Vannelle, head of the school. From the first class of graduates in 2005, three recently graduated from college. Of the total 68 graduates, 65 have attended or are attending private high schools, and 20 have attended or are attending college.

Students often come from well below the poverty line and from single-parent households. Some of them have one or both parents incarcerated, Vannelle said.

The school runs an extended day with shorter breaks, and is far more involved in all aspects of the students’ lives than can be achieved in a traditional public school.

Though Moylan was still practicing medicine until the end, he was a steady presence at the school.

“He was incredibly humble. He would let it be known he was no better than anyone else in this building,” Vannelle said.

Before leaving the school, Moylan always asked the boys if there was anything he could do for them.

“That was his typical way of exiting the building,” Vannelle said.

Amario Carlton graduated from the DNS in 2011 and is now a student at the Asheville School.

“From my encounters with Dr. Moylan, I’ve learned the meaning of giving back,” Carlton said. “He saw something in us most people didn’t and I thank him for giving us the opportunity to see a different side of the world.”

Carlton’s older brother Antonio also graduated from DNS.

“I can truly say he loved my brother and I,” Amario Carlton said. “Founding the Durham Nativity School shows that he truly cared about others by taking unprivileged kids, who didn’t have the opportunity to succeed in certain schools due to the lack of resources in those schools. He took kids from the streets, and helped shape and mold them into community leaders.”

Not every student has become a success story. But even those who were unable to matriculate to college remained a priority for Moylan.

“The thing that I probably will be most mindful of is the fact that he just would not give up on a kid,” Vannelle said.

Vannelle pointed to one student who is currently incarcerated. Moylan and his wife made frequent visits to the young man in prison, bringing him books and encouraging him to not give up on himself, for they had not given up on him.

Moylan’s children say he was about as involved in their lives as a father could be. Their sports schedules were the priorities around which he built the rest of his agenda, and that extended to his grandchildren.

“As busy as he was at the hospital he always came home for dinner. Or if he couldn’t come home for dinner, we’d go to the hospital,” said his eldest daughter, Maura Sullivan.

The day he died, he had attended a girls’ lacrosse game at Durham Academy. One of his granddaughters’ friends was playing, and the avid sports fan took the time from his day to show his support.

Until he died (of cardiac complications), Moylan was still doing surgery once a week at Durham’s VA Medical Center.

Later in life, he also attended Mass at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church every day, Brendan Moylan said.

In going through his things they found a well-worn note in his wallet on which a theologian was quoted: life is hard; you will die; in the big picture you are not important; you are not in control; life is not about you, it’s about everyone else.

It explained a lot.

“I really think he saw himself as a servant to other people,” Brendan Moylan said.

“I always knew my father was a man of very, very deep faith. I thought it was a well, but it was probably more of an ocean.”

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service