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Gut Instincts: Giving Back to Where It All Began

Charles Hamlin ’65 doesn’t believe in fate, but his path to becoming a hand surgeon is full of interesting karma, including his choice to come to Dartmouth Medical School.  Or as he likes to point out: “Dartmouth’s willingness to take a chance and choose me.”

He also chose the medical school because he was a New Englander, he says. “This created an abstract comfort zone for me.”

On day one, he realized his instinct about Dartmouth was right. “I hadn’t taken an intense science course in years,” says Hamlin, who at 25 was the oldest in his class. He read the assignment for his first biochemistry lecture, nervous about holding his own with freshly graduated pre-med majors.

“I was very anxious. That first class, at eight in the morning on the very first day, a young instructor walks in and says, ‘Hamlin, what’s the normal sodium level in the human body?’ I looked down at my notes and answered correctly without a pause. I can only imagine the Bronx cheers coming from my classmates. The instructor then asks me a follow up question, and I say, ‘You only get one from me!’” Hamlin laughed then, and now, too. “The lecturer looks up, surprised, pauses and then he laughs too.  It broke the ice. Everybody relaxed, and off we went as a class. I felt we were all in this together, working toward a common goal.”

Dartmouth’s collaborative spirit influenced his learning and later his practice. That’s why he feels strongly about giving back through generous gifts to the Fund for Geisel. His experiences at Dartmouth foretold his calling in a way that seems—well, fated. It all goes back to that first year.

“At the end of our anatomy written exam, we drew questions out of a hat, and I drew, ‘review the intrinsic muscles of the hand,’” he recalls. “There was the first lead-in to my career. When I arrived at Columbia, my second rotation found me assigned to head of the hand service. We got along just fine, and I took my two-month elective with him in my fourth year. I was at his side wherever he went, and he taught me a great deal. And in a final nudge, I interned at Roosevelt Hospital in New York where practiced one of the finest and most charismatic of hand surgeons. So it seems at every step of the way, from Dartmouth on, I had a path to guide me.”  He’s happily followed that path ever since.

A Rewarding Path

Hamlin completed clinical rotations at Columbia University, followed by two years in general surgery and three in orthopaedics, culminating with a year’s fellowship in hand surgery with Dr. J William Littler.  Settling in Denver after two years in the Air Force, he started in a basement office and retired 40 years later with nine younger partners. During his career, he also remembers warmly his opportunity to work at the Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Englewood, CO, assisting patients with cervical spine injuries who had little or no hand function. He also found time to start a volunteer hand clinic on the Navajo reservation. He ran that program for many years, recruiting hand surgeons from all over the country to volunteer for the clinic. It continues on today.

Although Hamlin has spent most of his professional life in the west, he often looks east, back to Dartmouth, where it all began.

“The medical school is where my major loyalties lie, in thanks for their support of me. The school’s message was and I’m sure remains still:  ‘We’re all in this together; everyone succeeds.’”