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A courageous and magnificent misfit

Posted: June 2, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: June 2, 2014 2:00 a.m.

My late father, a European-trained physician, did everything himself without benefit of nurses, clerical staff or drafty assembly-line consultation cubicles.

He took your temperature as you sat on a white enamel swivel chair. He even drew blood from your finger and let it run up a thin graded tube as you marveled at the strange powers of capillary action.

This wonderful man had his own centrifuge, a gleaming autoclave and an old Roentgen that hummed with imperturbable omnipotence in a bright, cheerful room that smelled of lavender and cloves.

When he administered injections, he’d deaden the point of impact with a dry little slap, and he’d talk about this and that with neighborly solicitude long after the needle was out.

You were never surprised to learn that he’s pedaled several kilometers at night in the rain to deliver a baby on an old kitchen table, or to hold the hand of a dying village patriarch as family and friends looked on.

Sometimes, it lasted till morning. He’d go straight back to his office looking tired, but he’d smile, put on a fresh smock and patch up scraped elbows and knees, and he’d even ask how Aunt Lucy or Uncle John was feeling these days.

“How much do I owe you, doctor?” I’d often hear his patients ask.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he’d answer, staring at his feet, clearly embarrassed by the question.

“Whatever you can.” Then he’d quickly add, “Don’t worry if you’re short. You can pay me next time.”

Talk of money made my father uncomfortable.

“There’s something absurd about charging money to heal, relieve pain or save lives,” he once told me.

“I shall never get used to it” — a remarkable ethos for a man who, by his own admission, had embarked on a medical career to escape the abject poverty of his childhood.

“It all happened in dissection class,” he recalled in a rare moment of introspection. “I wept at the sight of my first cadaver. He was so very young, so very much alone, forgotten.

“Who is this wretched mass no one has claimed? I asked myself. Has he no family? Is there no one to mourn him? Surely he was alive; he felt pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. He had dreams. He loved.

“Was he loved in return? Did poverty deprive him of good health or rob him of a decent funeral?”

A pre-med student who now boasts a New York Fifth Avenue practice; a New Canaan, Connecticut manor; and a yacht at anchor in a secluded cove somewhere in a Caribbean coral archipelago once asked my father what he considered to be the three capital medical taboos.

My father replied: “Do not operate unless your patient’s life and well-being are at stake. Do not overmedicate. Never charge more than patients can afford to pay.

“Ignore the first two injunctions and you are unprincipled. Break the third and I shall call you a vampire.”

I miss my father. He was incorruptible. He had no time for sophistry, no patience for equivocation, no room for the shaded areas separating right and wrong.

Compassion was his guide, his patient’s health his sole mission and reward.

He lived frugally: “How much does one really need to live with dignity?” he once asked a wealthy colleague who found the question contentious.

My father died poor but debtless.

I wish I had a dollar in my pocket for every patient this 1935 summa cum laude graduate of the Paris University School of Medicine treated for nothing, for every leg of lamb or basket of eggs he accepted in lieu of honorarium, for every debt he forgave.

I would have had more than enough to afford the thorough checkup doctors denied me when I lost my job, when unemployment benefits ran out and I could no longer afford America’s exorbitant health insurance premiums.

I was 45 then. I am now 76. They say it’s cheaper to die than to live.

My father devoted his career to deconstructing aphorisms. He was the magnificent misfit lesser men do not have the courage to be.

W.E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and former Signal columnist. The foregoing essay, reprinted with permission by the author from the Jan. 31, 1996, edition of the Wall Street Journal, elicited a barrage of vicious invectives from the medical establishment. It also caught the eye of then-President Bill Clinton, who sent the author a handwritten congratulatory letter and promised, unsuccessfully, to overhaul America’s byzantine and predatory health-care system.


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