Sunday, April 21, 2019

Paul Obis RN - A Pioneering Nurse Influencer

Every young nurse graduates from training school with high minded dreams to heal the world, but after  a couple of years at the bedside the dream begins to fade as burnout sets in. No matter what you do to get around it, sooner or later, it's going to set in like the darkness of night.  An often times rigid and authoritarian hospital environment quashes outside the box thinking and  innovation. I was fortunate to attend school and work with a nurse that could see beyond the bedside and promote health and wellness on a more global scale. We were good friends even though our paths diverged as I stubbornly clung to bedside nursing and he moved on to a more grand vision.

Paul Obis entered nursing school a year after me. He was a slightly built young man with an engaging personality and shoulder length hair. The hair issue was a big deal in nursing school and addressed frequently at uniform inspections. Hair was thought to be a source of infection and everyone on the nursing staff had to keep their hair off the collar while working in the hospital. Paul opted out of the Brilliantine butch haircut for the  typical men in nursing coiffure and went with a pony tail to keep his locks off the collar. What worked for the girls worked for the guys.

Every student nurse has a shocking epiphany early on in nursing school, for me it was how much patients suffered. For Paul, it  was how terrible hospital food choices were for recovering  patients. In the early 1970s the ideal meal was a huge chunk of meat surrounded by something deep fried. The notion of "healthy food" was decades in the future. When someone heard that artificial ingredients and colors were a big component of their diet, the line of thinking was; those clever scientists are at it again. What will they think of next?

Nutition classes in the early 1970s nursing programs promoted notions that white bread was  just as nutritious as whole grain and the ideal protein source was a big chunk of animal flesh smothered in gravy. Paul was quick to note the malnourishment present in hospital patients as diets of the time did practically nothing to promote recovery. Vascular bypasses of one variety or another were the cutting edge procedures of the era. The sad part of this miraculous new surgery was the temporary nature of the complicated fix. Patients were returning to the hospital a few years down the road with their fancy grafts occluded by the very same atherosclerotic changes that afflicted their native anatomy.

The cholesterol theory relating saturated fats to vascular disease was in it's infancy, but this did not deter  Paul who began researching and promoting vegetarian diets as a boon to good health. Vegetarians were few and far between in the early 1970s and excluding meat from a diet was viewed in a freakish light. There was no internet or social media for folks to connect so Paul started writing a little 4 page newsletter with the proud title of Vegetarian Times.

Distribution was limited to the area around the immediate hospital on Chicago's North Side. By Vegetarian Times Issue No. 3 the newsletter circulated to areas that Paul could reach on his bright green  Schwinn Varsity bike. The VT footprint gradually grew to the point where I let Paul deliver them in my brand new Ford Pinto. Paul christened the little Runabout as  the Vegetarian Times Staff Car. A "LOVE ANIMALS -DON'T EAT THEM"  bumper sticker was proudly displayed which got me bemused looks in the Burger King parking lot. I was a blatant  carnivore and never really adopted the meatless life.

Vegetarian Times evolved into a full scale magazine and by 1990 Paul had a media blockbuster on his hands. He worked from an office in Oak Park with a staff of 25 producing the monthly magazine. When I saw the magazine for sale in the gift shop at the hospital where I worked in Pittsburgh, I came to realize the publication had journeyed full circle back to a hospital.
Yep, That's me endorsing VT. It's a good thing that
scrub nurse thing worked out. I was an awful model!

When we were young nurses it seemed as though time was giving us more and more. I now realize it can take everything away too. Sadly,  Paul died of Lewey Body dementia last June His memorial website of a life well lived is:


  1. A wonderful tribute to a pioneering mind ~

    from another carnivore

  2. I looked him up on Wikipedia and it seems he made a heap of money out of it too!

    Our hospital meals in my day were pretty healthy (meat/fish and plenty of vegetables and dessert and a piece of fruit) and one hospital where I worked for a while was totally vegetarian and the meals were fantastic (for both patients and staff!) That hospital used to have its own vegetable gardens and herd of cows but unfortunately the council stepped in and declared this unsanitary - personally I loved looking out a hospital window onto a field of peacefully grazing cows! Fascinating story thanks OFRN. Sue

  3. Wow, what a great story and obituary! Paul was only 2 weeks younger than me. When I started to go into nursing at the U of Iowa (I didn't get very far) I had been working in the hospital kitchen as a cook making food for 1100 patients and 3000 staff. It wasn't terrible food, but not anything like what can be done today, not that is always is. I am glad you got to know him and was wondering how a nurse could even afford to stand anywhere near a Rolls Royce? :) Thanks again for a terrific story.

  4. So did you get to drive that Rolls OFRN? Sue

  5. That silly looking photo of me in the Vegetarian Times subscription offer was about the closest I've ever been to a Rolls. I could not even afford the gas for that thirsty 12 cylinder engine. My appetite for expensive cars was curbed when I figured out how many cases I had to scrub for to purchase a Ford Pinto. It was a sobering calculation. Despite all the publicity about exploding Pintos, my little car served me well for 8-9 years and 150K plus miles. I never moved on from small cars and currently have a Corolla matrix and a bicycle.

  6. From a person who knew Paul way back when and helped him with his first VT mailing list...these kind and generous comments are a reflection of your respect for Paul as well as your humanity and kindness. Please publish a picture of your "poor man's Rolls Royce, your old "Pintonental".

  7. It's probably a good thing that there are no surviving photos of that God awful Pintonential. I hate to admit but it, but it's true, that lowly little Pinto had a custom made Lincoln Continental front end. I should have known you can't make a silk purse from a cow's stomach! One of my many youthful indiscretions.