Dr. Ed was my doctor from the time I was fourteen until he retired in 1989. Since then, we have continued to keep in touch, by phone, and about once a year, I visit him and his wife, Emily. He has always been a rock to me. He is always there when I need him. While he was still a practicing physician, in Boston, whenever I had a medical problem, I called him, from wherever I was, literally from all over the world, from Moscow to Maine, from Princeton to Paris. While living in Princeton, I never found a doctor who was as excellent, accessible, or sensitive as Dr. Ed. It took almost ten hours for one Princeton doctor to call me back when I had an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. I could always get through to Dr. Ed right away.
Dr. Ed is one of those rare doctors and rare people that become more invisible in our self-hyped, self-promoting, brash, crass, rushed, hi-tech, low-civility, depersonalized world. Although he is an outstanding pulmonary physician (I once met someone whose relatives had flown from South America to consult with him), one would never guess it from his modest demeanor. He intuitively understands that he is not Doctor-the-god. He has a genius for living. His is a quiet wisdom. He is content with who he is. He is a man of few words. He is solid, absolutely reliable. He doesn't play psychological power games with people. He is unhurried and deliberate. A longtime nurse of his told me that she had never seen him in a hurry. Part of his healing power comes from his calm presence. He heals just by being there.
Even though he is a mainstream medical school-trained doctor (McGill University, the Mayo Clinic) who depends on the usual array of blood tests, x-rays, and other diagnostic tools of high technology, he doesn't let himself be ruled by machines. He knows that the human element, of talking and listening and being with a person, is also important to the healing process. Before he retired, I asked him whether he would miss anything. He said that he would miss the people aspect of the profession, the following of people over the years. He cares about the whole person, not about the disease that happens to be attached to the irrelevant human being, as often seems the case with doctors in the hi-tech 1990s. I always feel better, I always feel safe, when I am with Dr. Ed. I trust him with my life.
And he is a brilliant physician who knows, intuitively, it seems, when to step in and when to step back and let nature harness a persons healing powers. In that respect, as in so many aspects of his personality, he reminds me of the character, in Tolstoy's War and Peace, of General Kutuzov, the Russian general who intuitively understood that history is made, battles are won or lost, not by the ego and manipulation of one individual will, as Napolean had thought, but by the sensitivity to the fact that one must left nature take its course, of its own free will. For Kutuzov, this meant allowing the many wills of many individuals to act, thereby creating history. For Dr. Ed, this means understanding that the doctor alone does not control the course of an illness. The enterprise of healing, although he never directly says anything about this, is a joint compact, between him and another human being, the patient, He is never intrusive, yet he shows a genuine interest in my life, in my family, in the travels and events and dreams of my life.
I was referred to Dr. Ed when I was a teenager. (He then became my parents and grandfathers doctor.) A local Maine physician, ninety years old and still making house calls, recommended that I go to Boston's Lahey Clinic because he couldn't figure out what was the matter with me. Luckily, it turned out that I was suffering from nothing more than a prolonged case of mononucleosis. While tests were done, Dr. Ed was more than kind. He held my hand throughout the unpleasant procedure of the catheterization of my heart. This was one of the quiet, understated yet meaningful touches (here, literal) that makes a difference in the world of human interaction.
Dr. Ed always accentuates the positive, the healthy, well person who happens, temporarily, to be suffering from a disease. This doesn't mean that he isn't thorough. His examinations were the most thorough that I have ever had. This doesn't mean that he dismisses ones symptoms. He respects ones own sense of ones body, and he listens attentively, without interrupting (interrupting is a trait I have found in epidemic proportions in many doctors), to ones descriptions of symptoms. He once recommended that it is a good thing to stay away from doctors as much as possible.
Dr. Ed, by the way, seemed to be the only doctor at Lahey Clinic never to wear one of those doctors white coats. He always wore a suit. He always shook hands with a patient, I suppose as a sign of respect. He always took whatever time was needed. I always had the sense that he was with the person in the moment.
He never toots his own horn. He does not huff and puff himself all over the land. There is a clam, a stillness, a peace in his presence.
In my already many-year search for a new doctor Dr. Ed is a hard act to follow; I have seen another kind of doctor, the one who worries, who is anxious, who conveys that anxiety and who fixates, aloud, on the multiple possibilities of disease, even when one is healthy. What I took for granted (or rather, what I never took for granted, but didn't realize how rare a gift it was) is Dr. Ed's capacity, without saying anything, to encourage one to think that one is feeling better and is capable of trying to get even better, and to know that one will soon feel better, even if one is sick.
Dr. Ed is, I believe, a hero, not in the craven heroism of today, the celebrity fame-seeker, the seeker of the limelight that now passes for heroism in our culture. Rather, he is a hero in the sense in which Tolstoy describes in War and Peace. For Tolstoy, the heroes are the non-heroes, the people who have the wisdom to accept life as it is, to appreciate life, to live life at and in every moment. Dr. Ed embodies the lesson that so much of Russian literature teaches, that the meaning of life is life itself.
When I visit Dr. Ed and Emily, he describes the backyard garden he plants, tends, and nurtures. He is what he is. He accepts life as it is. He exists fully in each moment. Emily, too shares these qualities of utter and honest engagement with life in the present.
Dr. Ed speaks about the three hundred flower bulbs he has planted. We sit in the family room surrounded by windows that look out on flowers, buses, and trees, windows that look out on a bird feeder whose seeds are the tickets to a chamber music concert of bird-voice instruments. A chorus of sparrows and the bright red of a cardinal against a blue sky accompany our conversation.
I consider Dr. Ed, like a few others in my life, to be part of my chosen family. I treasure this chosen family. I am very glad that Dr. Ed and Emily are a part of my life. I feel honored to know them.