Dr. Zenko Hrynkiw: When a Hero Says he’s Not a Hero

Dr. Zenko Hrynkiw, Neurosurgeon at Trinity Medical Center, Birmingham, AL

Dr. Zenko Hrynkiw

In our hero-worshipping culture, what happens when someone hailed as a hero rejects that label?

On January 28 of this year, during the snow storm that paralyzed much of the U.S. South, Dr. Zenko Hrynkiw received a call that an emergency brain surgery was needed to save a patient at the hospital where he works, Trinity Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama. At the time, he was six miles away at another hospital, Brookwood Medical Center, where he had been assisting another doctor in surgery.

All in a day’s work.

Only this wasn’t an ordinary day.

Dr. Hrynkiw attempted to drive over to his hospital, but he didn’t get far. The roads were jammed with accidents, stuck vehicles, and roadblocks. So he got out of his car and started walking.

Along the way, he used his cell phone to keep in contact with Steve Davis, the charge nurse at the neurological intensive care unit at Trinity Medical Center, getting updates on the patient and giving instructions for medications and preparations for surgery. Without immediate surgery, the patient had a 10% chance of survival. Dr. Hrynkiw was not going to let him die—snowstorm or no snowstorm.

When AL.com picked up the story, Dr. Hrynkiw was hailed as a hero.

But he insists that there was no heroism involved. He was just doing his job. In a follow-up interview with AL.com, he had this to say:

Interviewer: Why do you think this is such a big story?

Dr. Hrynkiw: It’s not. I don’t understand it. (pauses) It’s not a story.

And when a Huffington Post interviewer bubbled over about how heroic his actions were, Dr. Hrynkiw brushed it off:

Interviewer: Everyone seems to be calling your actions “beyond heroic.” Do you feel like a hero?

Dr. Hrynkiw: No! I think this is much ado about nothing. I mean, basically, that’s my job, and you know, you gotta do what you gotta do.

He matter-of-factly described the events of the day and the patient’s almost certain death if he didn’t make it, adding that it wasn’t going to happen on his watch—as if walking six miles in the snow is just what an ordinary human being does in the course of his job.

And you know, he’s right!

Or at least, he should be.

Do we deserve praise for doing our job?

In a story traditionally called “The Parable of the Unworthy Servant,” Jesus offered this illustration:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready, and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-10)

As far as Dr. Hrynkiw is concerned, he did not deserve any special praise. He was just doing his duty. He is trained as a neurosurgeon, and he is the only neurosurgeon on the staff of Trinity Medical Center. Yes, it’s wonderful that he saves lives. And it’s wonderful that he walked six miles in the snow to do it.

But what’s all the fuss about, he asks? Isn’t that just what I’m supposed to do?

He might ask each of us, “If you could save someone’s life by walking six miles in the snow, wouldn’t you do it?”

I hope the answer would be yes—assuming we are physically capable of it. And Dr. Hrynkiw is a regular walker, who keeps himself physically fit. Though he was a bit chilly at first in his hospital scrubs, he described it as “a beautiful day for a walk.” He warmed up fairly quickly. In fact, by the time he arrived at Trinity Medical Center, he was sweating! Then he briefly spoke to the family, and got to work, saving the patient’s life.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to recognize people who do a good deed.

But on this one, I’m with Dr. Hrynkiw. This is just what we human beings are meant to do for each other.

Here is a brief news clip about Dr. Hrynkiw’s six mile trek:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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10 comments on “Dr. Zenko Hrynkiw: When a Hero Says he’s Not a Hero
  1. Glenn says:

    o Neil Armstrong was my hero not because he walked on the moon but because he seldom spoke about walking on the moon, or anything else to do with himself. Declining to call attention to his improbable achievements was one of Armstrong’s improbable achievements, an act of genuine humility. C.S. Lewis wrote: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.” — Steve Rushin

  2. Y. Prior says:

    what a great post – and I continue to hear stories about what different people did while on those roads in Atlanta – and well, thanks for this inspiring story –

    and regarding: should we get “praised for doing our job”

    well I think plenty of well meaning doctors would have just sat in their cars that day too – and just viewed the storm as crippling to the usual plans…. I mean can we blame those that did NOT want to endure a long walk in a bad storm while all alone – I dunno…

    and so I think Dr. Zenko is not necessarily a HERO – but instead, is a person who operates with excellence – and has a sense of duty with high conscientiousness. And it comes down to “how we look at a situation…” and truly, what a guy!! If I ever need a doc, well I hope to have this guy or someone with the same excellence!

    Lastly, thanks for including this part of Zenko’s interview, where he said, ” it wasn’t going to happen on his watch…”
    because that is one of my favorite lines I use with my boys – like at times when I am holding my stance in a non-negotiable area – I actually say….
    – “sorry, but this isn’t going to happen – not on MY watch….”


    • Lee says:

      Hi Y. Prior,

      Thanks for your thoughts. All of that is why I said:

      And you know, he’s right!

      Or at least, he should be.

      This is how human beings should operate, even if many of us don’t.

      • Y. Prior says:

        Oh yes, I caught that you said that!!! and your post was so week written with the nice balance of your thoughts and then letting us “feel” this doctor by using quotes and just the way you explained it – which is what allowed me to add my thoughts. 🙂

      • Y. Prior says:

        Hey Lee – don’t take this the wrong way, but this is the second time I have gotten haughty vibe from you – it may just be your direct writing style – but in some of your tone I sense some pride – or as if you think you may be the authority on most things – haven’t been around enough to really know – but because of that I am going to unfollow – but bless you and best wishes in all that you do and in the readers that want your highly proclaimed formal expertise….

        • Lee says:

          Hi Y. Prior,

          Sorry if I came across that way. Really, I was just agreeing with you. I do thank you for your thoughtful comments.

        • Y. Prior says:

          lee – thanks for your nice reply!! and I am sorry if that was rude, I really am – and it was likely less about you and more about the tons of other Christians I have met that have acted as though they are God’s gift to everything Christian – and actually, I also felt your hospitality when I initially left a comment – and I even told my husband how you went out of your way to comment and invite any questions- true hospitality. and well, I will definitely be coming back – so thanks again for the nice reply. 🙂

        • Lee says:

          Thanks, and no worries! I understand about the way many Christians come across. I don’t think that’s the true spirit of Christianity. I do appreciate your presence here!

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