A Radical History Review: A Perhaps Unnecessary, But Overdue, Tribute To My Dad

June 19, 2011, 4:08 pm

We at Tenured Radical no longer have a father to give presents to, or buy cards for, on Father’s Day.  When we did have a father, this is who he was.  He probably had as many flaws as the next 1960s and 1970s Dad, but he was a very nice person, a widely admired physician, and a hard worker.  He went out of his way to make a nice life for his family and to provide the resources that made it possible for both of his daughters to have an excellent education.

Although I don’t think he would have described himself this way, he was an organic intellectual who had tremendous curiosity about the natural, social, cultural and political world.  He was the Oliver Saks of internal medicine, collecting and collating information with what I can only describe as pleasure, putting it together like a puzzle until all the pieces fit. In practical terms, this meant he was a very good and thorough doctor, and would bird-dog a peculiar set of symptoms until they could be treated effectively. Once, over four decades ago, before tick-born diseases were well known to all of us, he correctly diagnosed a man who had  Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever — a disease that was entirely treatable, but had been missed because it almost never appeared in Pennsylvania. 

We held a memorial service for Dad back in September, 1997, two months after he died so that everyone from the hospital could be there.  One of the things that was truly memorable (I do not remember a thing about the eulogy I delivered, although I have a copy of it filed away somewhere) was the number of people who got up to speak about him and revealed things I had not known about Dad.  And yet, each of these anecdotes was completely consistent with the person I did know.  For example, a developmentally disabled man whose job it was to keep the stairwells clean got up to speak in front of about three hundred people.  He explained his job, and said that every day my father made a point of telling him what good work he was doing on the stairs and thanking him for it. 

Dad really liked people, and he was interested in them:  he spent hours in the evening and on weekends talking to his patients on the telephone, often helping them make decisions about painful chronic diseases, terminal cancers or conditions that had suddenly turned scary.  I remember lots of conversations ending with him saying, “Go to the emergency room, and I’ll meet you there,” and he would get dressed and head back out to the hospital no matter what time it was.

When Dad retired because his own illness had advanced, he was deeply concerned about the increasingly money-driven, and litigious, world of medicine that was separating the interests of doctors from their patients and making personalized care all but impossible for many young doctors who would have liked to provide it.  As chief of medicine, he also understood that lots of different people played important roles to make the mission of a hospital successful, and that all jobs — even the ones that other people might view as menial — were important.  He  enjoyed teaching, he enjoyed solving difficult medical problems, he appreciated the professionalism of his nurses and he enjoyed helping young doctors make their careers.

I realized some years ago that, despite the great differences in our professional lives, I have ended up sharing many of my father’s values and pleasures, even though I don’t recall him ever having conveyed them except by example. One of the many reasons I am sorry he is dead is that I think we would have enjoyed talking about these things together.  So, without further ado:

Happy Father’s Day, Phil Potter.  The mission continues.

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