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An advocate for change

LO orthopaedic surgeon John Tongue remains busy after more than three decades and was recently inducted as the new AAOS president

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has 36,000 members and it's the largest organization of its kind in the entire world.

But only one of their members is like Dr. John Tongue of Lake Oswego, the new AAOS president.

Tongue comes from the trenches and the streets, not from the ivory tower academicians who have dominated the president's office for many years. Yet Oregonians owe him a lot. Not only for his more than three decades as a skilled orthopaedic surgeon, but for his tireless crusade to improve traffic safety and save lives.

Once upon a time people spat on Tongue in the streets of Salem while he was gathering signatures to put a safety belt measure on the state ballot. When he was inducted as AAOS president on Feb. 9, it was said of Tongue, 'he is revered in Oregon as an activist for road safety.'

Certainly, Tongue has come a long way since he started his medical career in Lake Oswego in 1978. But the public's appreciation of him has come even farther.

'I'm excited today about my work as when I first started,' said Tongue, who has no intention of slowing down, even at age 65.

Few people find their callings as early as Tongue. He was 4 years old when he read the book, 'Dr. Dan the Bandage Man.' Inspiration was instantaneous.

'I then told my parents I wanted to be a doctor,' Tongue said.

For a long time, however, young Tongue intended to become a pediatrician, until he was studying in Switzerland, just as the practice of orthopaedic medicine was undergoing a revolution in the 1970s.

'I saw a screen of a pin in a hip fracture,' Tongue said. 'The light went on, and I knew right then I was going to become an orthopaedic surgeon. But even more exciting than fixing things is having the ability to relieve people from chronic pain.

'When I check with a patient six months after an operation, the man and the wife both look five years younger. It's an incredible feeling.'

But simply healing people one patient at a time was not enough for Tongue. Traffic safety became his driving obsession. It started the day when, as a 17-year-old driver, a car hit his vehicle broadside and sent it tumbling. He was badly injured, but he lived.

'That was the scariest day of my life,' Tongue said. 'There is no doubt that the lap belt saved my life. I don't look at traffic statistics as numbers. I see real people.'

So, in the 1980s, Tongue began his long crusade to improve traffic safety by striving to make wearing seatbelts mandatory by law. He did it right in the teeth of a political reaction that made the wearing of seatbelts a personal freedom issue.

Tongue learned some hard lessons about politics as he went along. Passing a seatbelt law was political Kryptonite at the time, and the first bill Tongue worked on was 'labeled a 'turkey' for purely political reasons.'

Fortunately, Tongue learned his lessons well, and most of all he was incredibly tenacious in the face of some shattering setbacks. One of them was seeing a public referendum fail in 1988 when it got only 44 percent of the vote.

'In 1988 it was all about personal freedom,' Tongue said. 'But I saw in various articles where attitudes about wearing seatbelts would improve over time.'

By 1990 the Oregon public was ready. That year Tongue and his allies collected 80,000 signatures (despite ugly incidents of hate mail and spitting) to place the measure on the ballot, and it won by getting 54 percent of the vote.

Since then, support for wearing seatbelts in this state has soared, rising to a national high of 97 percent.

'It's a typical Oregon way of handling a problem,' said Tongue, shaking his head. 'That law has saved us hundreds of millions of dollars.'

Tongue has more than fulfilled the early promise he showed when he became an Eagle Scout at the age of 14. His wife, Nancy, is a widely known artist and a life-long Lake Oswego resident, and they are the parents of three children - daughters, Laura and Lisa, and son Christopher.

Tongue has earned the right to fade gracefully into the sunset. Instead, as AAOS president he is returning to the trenches to face the biggest challenge of his entire life - providing adequate health care for Americans.

In his induction speech before 5,000 people in San Francisco, Tongue asked the audience, 'Why are we the only developed country in the world without basic health care access for all of our children? We need to deliver a powerful new message.

'The winds of change will blow hard. We must be bold and clear in delivering our message. I pledge to do all I can to help us move forward.'



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