Hugh Walters, MD, had an innate sense of compassion and humility. His peers remember the former UF College of Medicine surgical resident as a selfless caretaker. He was the first to help someone in need — and the last to back away from a challenging patient case.
In 2008 — halfway through his surgical residency — Walters was killed in an accident when the SUV he was driving hit a culvert and rolled over.
To honor his memory, the UF Department of Surgery established the Hugh A. Walters, MD, Humanitarian Fund. The fund supports humanitarian efforts in surgical education. The award is given annually to a surgical resident who embodies Walters’ qualities of compassionate care and selfless dedication to excellence. Recipients return the following year to lead a Grand Rounds presentation at the department of surgery.
“Hugh was always so patient, soft-spoken and encouraging,” said Alex Cuenca, MD, PhD, the 2015 Walters award recipient. “He took personal ownership of patient care.” Cuenca is a former chief resident in the department and now a pediatric surgery fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Cuenca knew Walters and called him a friend. He said Walters inspired him to do the best he could for his own patients.
“You need your patients to be certain they’re getting first-rate treatment from their surgical care team,” Cuenca said.
The stories about Walters’ compassion are numerous, said his parents, Curtis and Margaretta Walters. After losing their son, the couple said nurses and other clinicians spoke about Walters’ willingness to help wherever he was needed.
“Whenever he passed the nurses’ station, he always asked, ‘Can I help with anything?’” Curtis Walters said. “If the nurses needed help making a bed or turning a patient, he would help. Hugh would do anything for his patients or co-workers.”
The words “It’s not my patient” were not in Walters’ vocabulary. When he encountered a patient who was not doing well — whether it was his patient or not — he would stay at the hospital and work with the nurses through their entire shift, medical team members told Walters’ parents.
His interest in medicine began at a very young age, said Margaretta Walters.
“He was just 4 years old,” she said.
At the time, his mother worked as a registered nurse and midwife at a maternity center in Jamaica. Once a week, the clinic provided free health care and medication to an underprivileged community. “He sat under a table at my feet,” Margaretta Walters said. “You wouldn’t know he was there unless you looked.”
His natural inquisitiveness prompted him to ask his mother about the diagnosis and treatment of her patients. “At home, he would take my stethoscope and perform checkups on his older brother Mark and me,” she said. “He always asked very sensible questions. Hugh said when he grew up, he wanted to be a doctor.”
By his teenage years — now in the United States — Walters volunteered at a Central Florida hospital during school breaks. Because he was a minor, he was not in direct patient contact — but that didn’t stop him from helping. He pitched in with office work or wherever else he was needed.
Ultimately, Walters received his undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University.
During his second year of medical school at the UF College of Medicine, he was accepted into the Research Scholars Program, sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institutes of Health. In addition to his surgical residency at UF, Walters also completed one year of training in critical care medicine. His lifelong ambition was to be a trauma surgeon in an academic setting, where he could continue to do research.
The Walters hope their son’s legacy will inspire others.
“We never knew he was involved in so many things until he passed away,” said Margaretta Walters. “He quietly worked and helped in any way he could. He never said, ‘I am Hugh Walters, MD,’ or ‘I am Dr. Walters.’ It was always just, ‘I am Hugh Walters.’ “We taught him not to boast about what you can do. Just do the best you can, as long as you can.”
Past recipients of the Walters award include Makesha Miggins, MD; Claire L. Griffin, MD; Tad Kim, MD; Dean J. Yamaguchi, MD; and Darryl L. Hunt, MD, PhD.