The Death of Dr. Shock

Dr. Shock
By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38480846

The call came from one of my attendings at night during my cardiology fellowship. It had a touch of the black humor that medical persons don’t like to admit bubbles up to the surface from time to time.

“You know Dr. Shock, the guy on TV? He’s being transferred. He’s having a big infarct and is in cardiogenic shock.”

I was at home. I quickly pulled myself together and got into my car to drive to the hospital. During the drive I reflected on the call.

Of course I knew who Dr. Shock was. He was a staple on local Philadelphia UHF television. Back in the 1960s and 70s, before cable TV with its hundreds of channels, there was just broadcast TV. In Philadelphia I still remember the channels: 3 (NBC), 6 (ABC), 10 (CBS), and 12 (PBS). However, beyond this VHF set of channels there was also UHF TV. Instead of the usual rabbit-ears antenna, these channels used a circular antenna. They also tended to be fuzzy and staticky. The shows were low budget and local, but well worth watching after school as a kid growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs. Local TV personality Wee Willie Webber introduced me to Ultraman and 8th Man on his show. Sally Starr presented Popeye cartoons and Three Stooges shorts.  Dr. Shock hosted Horror Theater while prancing around in a Dracula get-up and presented old black and white monster movies. He was a funny, silly host, defusing the scariness of the movies in a tongue-in-cheek manner that later hosts, like Elivra, Mistress of the Dark, and Joel and Mike in Mystery Science Theater 3000 would come to perfect. So, yeah, I certainly knew who Dr. Shock was.

When I saw him in the hospital, I myself was shocked. This was a young looking man. Without his makeup, he didn’t at all resemble TV’s Dr. Shock. I found out his real name was Joseph Zawislak. He was just 42 years old. He was in the CCU with a big MI and low blood pressure. He shook my hand and was polite, dignified, and deferential. “Do what you can, Doc.” I had been directed by my attending to place a Swan-Ganz catheter.

This was 1979. I was a first year cardiology fellow. There wasn’t a whole lot we could do for someone in cardiogenic shock from a big myocardial infaction back then. It was the dawn of the thrombolytic and angioplasty age and those treatments were not readily available. Infact size limitation was all the rage, using nitrates, balloon pumps, and various magic potions. Practically speaking though, a large infarct with cardiogenic shock was usually a death sentence.

So it was that poor Dr. Shock arrested that night and couldn’t be resuscitated. Now, almost 40 years later, after so many forgotten patient interactions, I still remember him and that night clearly.

About mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.

5 thoughts on “The Death of Dr. Shock

  1. I just found the story you wrote about the nite my brother Joe Zawislak aka Dr. Shock died in the hospital. Tears are rolling down my face as I read what he said to you….do what you can Doc as he shook your hand. In the last week, Facebook is exploding with pictures, videos, and stories about my brother who was loved by so many. Your story may be included in a movie adaptation about Dr. Shock if we can get the movie producer to start the project. Thank you again. Anne Strohl

    1. Many of us old fans of Dr. Shock still miss him, and were frustrated that he was taken from us so soon. It was a shame for his family too that he had to go at such a young age. But we will always remember him and all the fun entertainment he gave to us for 9 years.

    2. Thank you Anne, your comments mean a lot to me. I would be happy to contribute to any information needed for a movie project. I hope my post was not too upsetting or too personal. I had a great love for Dr. Shock and his brand of humor, gently poking fun at silly old horror movies. He anticipated shows like Elvira and Mystery Science Theater 3000. I wish we had the technology to treat heart attacks that we have now back then, but it was so long ago.

  2. Thanks for sharing. As a physician I suspected either that, or a PE, or a massive stroke or burst aneurysm. A tragedy no matter what. Your post, however is a MASSIVE HIPAA violation. Protect yourself by getting permission from the next legal represemtative for revealing medical information that is insufficiently de-identified to prevent tracing to an actual person. Start with a spouse, then progress to parents, then children, then siblings.

    1. His sudden cardiac death was reported in the local media. He died 40 years ago. I don’t think my post reveals anything more than this, other than that he was a real brave and gentle soul. If a family member requests I remove the post, of course I will.

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