Time out with T.O. - Paying it forward

by Tom O'Connor, UNMC strategic communications (retired) | January 12, 2021

Image with caption: After he suffered a serious accident in 2005, Bill Scott was no longer able to engage in one of his favorite pastimes - playing the trumpet. Thanks to his dedication and rehabilitation efforts, Scott has regained his ability to play. He's seen here playing at a UNMC event with his son, John.

After he suffered a serious accident in 2005, Bill Scott was no longer able to engage in one of his favorite pastimes - playing the trumpet. Thanks to his dedication and rehabilitation efforts, Scott has regained his ability to play. He's seen here playing at a UNMC event with his son, John.

Bill Scott knows how lucky he has been.

The Omaha philanthropist was Warren Buffett's right-hand man for more than 25 years. He was very successful. Fortunately for Nebraska, Scott has spent the past couple decades donating much of his earnings back to projects that will make our state a better place.

UNMC and Nebraska Medicine have been huge benefactors of donations made by Scott and his wife, Ruth. Nearly every major building on campus has been touched by their generosity.

Bill and Ruth both turned 90 in 2020 and are still going strong. But, 15 years ago, Bill had a close call that could have dramatically changed the course of his life.

Scott was part of a group of 12 golfers who journeyed to western Nebraska to play the Sand Hills Golf Club, one of the top 100 golf courses in the U.S.

Golfers are housed in a lodge near the course, which is located outside Mullen, a tiny village of about 500 people.

After dinner with his colleagues, Scott retreated to the deck outside his bungalow around 10 p.m. to do what he had done for years -- smoke his only cigarette of the day right before going to bed.

Dressed only in a T-shirt and shorts, he was not prepared for what happened next. He slipped on a rug, jamming his head and neck into a heavy wood chair as he tumbled to the deck floor.

He was knocked unconscious. None of his friends knew he was out there -- they had all gone to bed.

It was a cool late August evening. Scott finally regained consciousness around 4:30 a.m., but the injury left him unable to get up. He was freezing cold and started tapping on the window for help. Thankfully, one of his friends was up getting a drink of water and heard the tapping.

A volunteer rescue squad from Mullen was summoned, and Scott was transported to Great Plains Health in North Platte about 70 miles to the south.

The emergency medicine physician on duty was James Smith, MD (aka "Smitty"), a 1988 graduate of the UNMC College of Medicine who was on the UNMC faculty from 1991-1994.

Dr. Smith's years at UNMC had prepared him well. His assessment was that Scott, whose body temperature was down to 90 degrees, suffered from central cord syndrome, a relatively rare injury impacting the portion of the spinal cord that runs through the bones of the neck.

When the spinal cord is squashed, bruising, bleeding and swelling can occur, particularly in the center or central portion of the spinal cord. The injury results in weakness in the arms more so than the legs. The injury is considered "incomplete" because patients are usually not completely paralyzed.

picture disc.
Jim Smith, MD, and wife Glee at the new emergency facility at Great Plains Health.

From many years in emergency medicine, Dr. Smith knew exactly what to do. He got things stabilized and treated Scott with a high dose of steroids.

"I had no clue who Bill was," Dr. Smith said. "One of his friends who came with him on the rescue squad mentioned that Bill was a prominent guy. That didn't mean much to me. Just about everybody who plays golf at Sand Hills fits that description.

"Bill's prognosis was not very good. Older people don't usually do well with this injury. Turns out that the colder outside temperature actually helped him as it lessened the swelling that occurred. If the swelling had gotten worse, Bill could easily have died or been disabled for life."

In short order, an air ambulance transported Scott to UNMC/Nebraska Medicine, where he was hospitalized for about 10 days. During that time, he was one of the last patients seen by Lyal Leibrock, MD, a legendary UNMC neurosurgeon. After his hospital stay, Scott was transferred to Immanuel Medical Center for about a month of rehabilitation.

Following rehabilitation, Scott returned to UNMC/Nebraska to undergo a neurosurgery procedure performed by William Thorell, MD, the Lyal G. Leibrock, MD, Chair of Neurosurgery, to place a titanium brace in his neck.

The road to recovery was far from easy. Following the mishap, there was no way Scott could golf or engage in one of his favorite pastimes -- playing trumpet in a polka band. But, thanks to his drive and dedication to rehab, he was eventually able to regain his motor skills and return to these hobbies.

Through it all, Scott held a soft spot for the work of Dr. Smith and Great Plains Health for keeping him alive and navigating care for his serious injury.

"I talked to Dr. Mike Sorrell (a legendary UNMC physician)," Scott said. "He said, 'You are so lucky that Dr. Smith was on duty. He's the best physician you could have had. I know -- I helped train him.'"

A few months after the accident, Scott called Dr. Smith to say thanks and tell him he wanted to make a donation to a charity of his choice. Dr. Smith suggested St. Patrick Junior/Senior High School in North Platte, where his four children attended school.

Their friendship grew. Each year on the anniversary of his Aug. 22 accident, Scott makes it a point to touch base with Dr. Smith, who received the Physician Medical Director of the Year Award from the Nebraska Emergency Medical Services Association in 2014.

"I call it 'Bill Scott Day,' Dr. Smith said. "Bill always originates the communication. He'll send me an email and say something like, 'Thanks to you, I played 18 holes of golf today or I played the trumpet in my polka band.' Or he might send a link to some polka music. He's such a kind, remarkable gentleman."

Several years after the accident, Dr. Smith mentioned to Scott that the emergency room at Great Plains Health was in need of a major upgrade.

His words did not go unheeded. Soon the Scotts came up with a possible solution -- Ruth and Bill would donate $5 million to the cause, if the community/hospital could raise the remainder of the $15.5 million project.

Within a couple years, the money was raised. On Oct. 29 -- due to the COVID-19 pandemic -- a virtual grand opening was held.

"It's an amazing facility -- the nicest ER I've seen in my 30 years in the business," said Dr. Smith, who received the J.G. Elliott Award from UNMC in 2019. "I can't thank the Scotts enough. It was their gift that got the ball rolling."

One positive that came out of everything, Ruth Scott said, is that Bill has quit his one cigarette a day habit.

"Dr. Sorrell always told Bill that one cigarette a day wouldn't hurt him," Ruth said. "He was wrong. It nearly killed him."

Sarah Gloden Carlson
January 12, 2021 at 7:06 AM

What a fantastic Story! Thank you to Ruth and Bill Scott for their support of Great Plains, and many important projects in Nebraska!

Sonja McCollister
January 12, 2021 at 6:29 AM

I always enjoy reading your articles, Tom. Yes, Bill and Ruth Scott have been a tremendous asset to UNMC and all of Omaha! Thank you for sharing Bill’s story!