Patients and friends recall an approachable genius

March 01, 2014

Dr. Morton was equally at ease with patients and donors as he was with fellow scientists.

Thousands of individuals were treated by Dr. Morton or touched by his kindness over the course of his illustrious career. A few of his patients and friends recall his humanity.

Donald L. Morton, MD
Donald L. Morton, MD
When first introduced to Dr. Morton, Melinda Wayne Muñoz says she was prepared to meet a different type of man. His reputation as an academician, researcher and surgeon had preceded that meeting. But the man she met exuded great humility and sincerity.

“His compassion for his patients alongside his passion for medicine were very impressive,” says Muñoz, the daughter of John Wayne. She serves on the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary board of directors.

Dr. Morton was unusual among researchers of his stature because he made a point of getting out of the lab to spend time with patients. “He said, ‘We don’t cure rats. We cure human beings,’” she recalls.

Dr. Morton was able to explain cancer research to a wide variety of audiences, says Ethan Wayne, the youngest son of John Wayne. Ethan is chief executive officer of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation in Newport Beach and president of John Wayne Enterprises.

When the idea first arose to name a cancer research institute after his famous patient, actor John Wayne, Dr. Morton advised the Wayne family on how to proceed. “We really relied on Dr. Morton’s guidance to help us build something that was a legacy to John Wayne,” Ethan says.

He adds that his late father would burst with pride at the research accomplishments of the Institute as well as the renowned surgical oncology fellowship program. John Wayne had an easy rapport with Dr. Morton and trusted him deeply.

“As a doctor, he was a straight shooter. He was direct. My father appreciated that,” he says. “My father understood that this was a smart guy who could make a difference to a lot of people.”

The Wayne family watched over the years as Dr. Morton pioneered new surgical oncology techniques and novel treatments for melanoma. “He is the paradigm of a research physician,” says Patrick Wayne, another son of the actor and chairman of the Institute. “Through his dedication and passion, he reached a position of excellence unmatched by any of his peers.”

Dr. Morton possessed a confidence and calm that lifted up everyone around him, says Sister Marie Madeleine Shonka, SCL, the former president and chief executive of Saint John’s Health Center. “I knew him as a very spiritual person. When he suggested we should take the ‘leap of faith,’ the move of the John Wayne Cancer Institute to Saint John’s Health Center was sealed. It was a providential venture for both of our institutions.”

Sister Maureen Craig, SCL, became close friends with Dr. Morton over their many years working together at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John’s Health Center and was always impressed by his desire to see others succeed. She recalls sitting next to Dr. Morton at an annual Saint John’s Health Center Foundation trustee event in Ojai and listening to the Institute’s fellows make their scientific presentations.

“Dr. Morton kept saying, ‘Sister, isn’t this great? The cure for cancer could be in this room. Golly, I’m so proud of them,’” she recalls, smiling.

“He had this wonderful enthusiasm for what lay ahead in the hands of these young researchers.”

Dr. Morton delighted in scientific discovery, she notes. “He had a passion for research. He was devoted to it. But he drew a connection between research and people. He always asked, ‘How will this research help people?’”

Patients who sought him out at the John Wayne Cancer Institute found a man who gave them time, attention and compassion. Elizabeth Riedel, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, credits Dr. Morton with saving her life after a diagnosis of melanoma on her eyebrow.

Riedel recalls Dr. Morton urging her to stay positive. During an appointment, he brought in his team to discuss the treatment plan, which included removing the tumor while carefully sparing important facial nerves and sensitive structures in the face, such as the salivary glands. He told Riedel: “We’re going to give you half a facelift.”

“They laughed,” she recalls of the moment. “This cheered me up.” Seventeen years later, Riedel is grateful she was referred to the John Wayne Cancer Institute. “Dr. Morton saved my life,” she says.

Marte Franklin of central California, often thinks about the care that spared her son’s life about 18 years ago. Her son, Mark, was living in Portland when he was diagnosed with a rare form of malignant melanoma. He had tumors in his lungs, liver and near his kidney, and his Portland physician suggested he would survive only about three months. A family member searched the country for a top expert in melanoma and found Dr. Morton.

“Dr. Morton told Mark he didn’t know exactly what could cure it or if it could be cured, but that he would do everything he could,” Franklin recalls.

Once Mark arrived at the Institute, he underwent chemotherapy and then surgery. He was declared cancer-free one year later and has been in good health since.

Mark’s successful treatment inspired Marte to become an annual fund donor and a member of the Guardians of the Future, the legacy society that recognizes friends and patrons who have remembered the Institute in their estate plans. “Dr. Morton gave me back my son,” she says.

Another former patient, Patricia Elton, was motivated to volunteer with the Institute after Dr. Morton treated her for breast cancer at age 63. She remembers a doctor who understood how cancer terrified his patients.

Today she is cancer-free and enjoys spending time with her three grandchildren. She is a member of the Institute’s Auxiliary and a recent recipient of the Auxiliary’s Angel Award.

“It’s a good life lesson for my grandchildren to see that their grandmother contributes to help a man and an organization that has dedicated their very existence to saving the lives of others,” she says.