BOUNTIFUL — Dr. Donald Doty has held countless human hearts in his hands, including that of some prominent Utahns, and in the shadow of a mentor and friend, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As a surgeon and a church leader, Doty has helped many people get better.
Now, it's other physicians who are helping keep him alive — lung cancer is just another of Doty's life twists that has only further humbled the venerable heart surgeon.
"Like everything else, he never complains, he's optimistic," Dr. Mark Ott, medical director at Intermountain Medical Center, said of Doty, who was once his patient. "He approaches (cancer) like anything else in life."
Doty's response to a potentially fatal cancer diagnosis of stage 3 lung adenocarcinoma is similar to how he approaches much in his life: "It is what it is."
In so many ways, it hasn't really gotten him down.
Aside from saving lives in the operating room at Intermountain Healthcare's LDS Hospital, he's doing just about everything that he's ever done.
Lung cancer wasn't a surprise to the 81-year-old doctor. He knew the symptoms and his chronic cough had recently brought up blood. His doctors ordered images and Doty asked to see the film.
"I knew what I had and I knew it was bad," Doty said Thursday. Lucky for him, however, the cancer has stayed in his chest.
Doty tried targeted gene therapy — pills he took for a month and something that has emerged since he retired as a practicing surgeon in 2004. It didn't work, so a new treatment plan ensued. He completed six weeks of combined chemotherapy and radiation, which his oncologist, Dr. Clarke Low, said can be quite taxing on patients, causing significant side effects.
"He has completed that treatment better than anyone I've seen in about five years of treating lung cancer," Low said, adding that Doty was in excellent physical health going into the regimen, and even during his treatment.
Low said he often saw Doty walking with his wife the basement halls at the hospital prior to the plentiful treatment appointments "to keep up his strength."
Strength, however, is something Doty said he has lost throughout the past several months. That, and balance.
"That was an ordeal," Doty said of his treatment. "It took every bit of resolve that I had to get through it."
His doting and efficient wife, Cheryl, has been by his side through it all, just as she has been all their married life — through medical school, cross-country moves, a successful career and retirement, and missionary service.
The duo raised two accomplished sons, including one who followed in his father's footsteps as a cardiac surgeon. On top of that, they still manage hundreds of acres of property on a ranch near Bear Lake, in Rich County. Cheryl Doty said her husband "is amazing" and she wouldn't have it any other way.
"He's been a very good doctor and surgeon, but also a very good father, husband and church leader," she said. "He has incredible resolve to keep going."
Church service, and the faith that must come with it, is a priority for Doty. It's what got him into medicine in the first place.
"There is great blessing to helping others," Doty told the Deseret News. "That was the Lord's way."
He and his wife served for nine years in the missionary department for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, revamping the system for recruiting doctors to help missionaries with all kinds of ailments, either locally or giving advice over the phone.
"For someone who has done so much, he truly exemplifies a servant leader — someone who is a leader, but who leads by doing and serving," Ott says of Doty.
The Dotys say they made lasting friendships through their dutiful church service and those friendships have served them well.
President Nelson's son-in-law helped build their Bountiful Mueller Park home, after Nelson, also a heart surgeon, was able to finally persuade Doty to move from Iowa to work in Nelson's Utah practice.
Following Doty's diagnosis, President Nelson was there to give a blessing, which, Doty said, helped tremendously.
"It doesn't get any better than that," Doty said of having the support of his prophet and leader of his religion. Doty also recalls performing heart surgeries on President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve for the church, as well as the late President Howard W. Hunter, Elder David B. Haight and Elder Robert D. Hales.
He's had an incredible life, though it hasn't made him the least bit haughty. His modest home is nestled in the canyon and is filled with memoirs of his time as a surgeon, as well as religious tokens he has intentionally collected over the years. He believes his greatness comes from his maker.
Doty's notoriety, however, has made the physicians who care for him a little nervous.
"It's terrifying, actually," Ott said. "There's an extra feeling of anxiety when you're caring for someone you literally admire."
Intermountain Medical Center in Murray contains an education complex named for Doty, as he donated to the efforts of the employee and community training facility when it was built. And the Dotys were presented the Legacy of Life award by the Intermountain Research and Medical Foundation in 2018.
Both Ott and Low said Doty was and is a terrific patient, as his own therapy is a collaborative effort between what he knows about medicine and what his doctors know. Doty said he learned how to be a good patient from years of working with them.
"He is one of the most humble people that I know," Low said. "It helps me feel not as intimidated treating a doctor, especially one that is as accomplished as he is."
It is difficult for Doty, however, to remain objective in his treatment and not self-adjust, but he said his doctors have his full trust.
Cheryl Doty said her husband's doctors have been "positive and encouraging" along the way, but also acknowledge what is to come.
The lung cancer is still there — it is inoperable because of a potentially complicating blood condition, but Doty's tumor hasn't grown. And doctors are hopeful.
"He's got a remarkably positive attitude," Low said. "He's able to find a really good balance of being realistic and understand the severity of having lung cancer, but also choosing and finding ways to be hopeful and optimistic."
Low said lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in Utah, the United States and the world, "not because it is in the most common cancer, but because it is particularly lethal and is often found very late."
There isn't a routine exam that would have found Doty's cancer any earlier, the oncologist said, adding that treatment for lung cancer has advanced in recent years. And while those treatments can be effective, he said, they often are not curative.
Doty's treatment, Low said, is a regimen that should offer significant benefits in improving his quality of life, as well as prolong his life.
The prognosis makes the devastating diagnosis more hopeful.
Meeting and caring for Doty, a remarkable person and patient, Low said, has "been a joy."
"This is a time that, understandably, he could look inward," Low said of Doty. "But, he wants to give of himself. He wants to go to Bear Lake. He is an unofficial doctor to the community up there, helping connect them with the doctors they need."
It's true. As recent as a couple of weeks ago, Doty performed a few "consultations," as his wife calls them, and he constantly feels the northern Utah pull.9 comments on this story
"I'm the doctor for Rich County," Doty said, adding that while the population is small, around 2,300 people, "the ranchers there are tough guys."
"The people are grateful for it," he said.
Doty has always lived by the principal, learned from lifelong scripture study, that teaching people correct principles helps them to govern themselves. He wants that for anyone and truly believes that people are inherently good.
"It's been a good life," Doty said. "One that is not without its challenges. But it is good."