The patient is 85 years old. He is scared. He’s in pain. He needs surgery if he’s to live. A situation this volatile could easily turn frantic. It could, in the wrong hands, be terrifying.
But this photograph feels not only calm, but somehow beatific. Everything about the man carrying the patient — the expression on his face, his evident strength, the competence of his grasp — says, Here is a person familiar with crisis; here is someone who will not panic.
He is, in fact, a general practitioner named Dr. Ernest Ceriani. In 1948, he was the subject of a groundbreaking photo essay in LIFE magazine, “Country Doctor,” by the great photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. Smith spent three weeks in Kremmling, Colo., chronicling the day-to-day challenges faced by the indefatigable Ceriani. But no picture in the entire essay — one of the greatest photo essays ever to appear in the pages of LIFE — captured the doctor’s commitment, his compassion, his kindness, quite like this photograph does.
Born on a sheep ranch in Wyoming, Dr. Ceriani attended Chicago’s Loyola School of Medicine but opted not to pursue a medical career in the big city. In 1946, after a stint in the Navy, he was recruited by the hospital in Kremmling, Colorado — a ranching community on a 7,000-ft. plateau beneath the towering Rocky Mountains. He and his wife Bernetha, who was born in Colorado, settled into the rural town. Dr. Ceriani was the sole physician for an area of about 400 square miles, inhabited by some 2,000 people.
“His income for covering a dozen fields is less than a city doctor makes by specializing in just one,” LIFE wrote, “but Ceriani is compensated by the affection of his patients and neighbors, by the high place he has earned in his community and by the fact that he is his own boss. For him, this is enough.”
In that quiet instant illuminated in Smith’s masterful photo — and in every other photo in “Country Doctor” — Ceriani’s essential decency shines through. On World Kindness Day (Nov. 13), we’re celebrating his tender, powerful example.