a physician, he was, or so I'm told, highly competent and
conscientious, without being at all cutting-edge. Most of the surgery
he did was routine: appendectomies, tonsillectomies, gall bladder
procedures, etc. ("Don't ever let anyone tell you the appendix is a
useless organ," he told me once. "It put you through college") and he
didn't bother to keep up with the journals.
In one regard he was
a generation ahead of his time: he took pain extremely seriously. "Pain
is always an emergency," he said. "It hurts right now." The only time
he ever mentioned blowing up at one of the hospital nurses was when an
order for pain medication wasn't promptly acted on.
On the other
hand, he was extremely old-fashioned about the doctor-patient
relationship. He no more expected to seek a patient's opinions about
how to treat his illness than to ask his car whether it needed oil. And
it was up to him to decide what the patient needed to know.
wasn't mere personal arrogance; he was quite willing to adopt his own
ideal of the patient's role when he was the patient. After the
near-fatal heart attack he suffered at age 60, his cardiologist
concealed from him just how bad things were. (Pretty bad. When he
finally got a look at the chart a few days later and saw an enzyme
level above 3000, he commented: "In my professional opinion, this man
is dead.") But he didn't regard that concealment as problematic in any
way: "Of course you don't tell a cardiac patient how bad things are.
Bad for his heart."
He was, in the Yiddish he strongly
discouraged me from learning or using when I was growing up, a mensch:
that is, he accepted the responsibilities of being an adult as he
understood those responsibilities, and he met them uncomplainingly. As
far as I could tell, he never really considered not doing whatever he
thought it was his menschlich obligation to do. (Not that he'd ever
express it that way: he'd just say, "You can't X," where X described
any evasion of duty or derogation of what he thought was owed to
If anyone tried to push him around, he would push
back, hard, but correspondingly he was very reluctant to push anyone
else around or make anyone else feel uncomfortable. (He liked his meat
very rare, but I never saw him ask a waiter to take an overcooked piece
back to the kitchen.) He didn't seem to derive any great satisfaction
from doing the right thing, but he did have a quiet pride in his
integrity: another word I never heard him use.
As a parent, he
was astonishingly patient and non-directive, giving direct orders very
seldom (and then expecting them to be obeyed automatically); even
unsolicited advice was rare and offered in a way that made it clear the
choice was yours. I found out only a few years ago that he mistook the
awe he inspired in my sister and me for emotional distance, and never
really grasped how much love and admiration he generated. He laughed
easily, but he regarded any expression of strong emotion as a sign of
weakness, which made it hard to show him affection. As my sister puts
it, he needed more closeness than he could tolerate.