Mind On The Run: “When A Pediatrician Chooses You”

By Anthony Kovatch, M.D., Pediatric Alliance — Arcadia Division

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(Musical accompaniment: “Going My Way” sung by Bing Crosby.)


Cutting-edge advances have revolutionized not only the science of medicine but also its art. We interact with our medical providers via the Internet, we communicate with them by texting, we can interview a prospective pediatrician on FaceTime or Skype. Background checks on physicians and vendors are at our fingertips. Facebook has replaced word-of-mouth as the primary source of information requisite to solving the question posed this week by The Pediablog: “How do you choose a pediatrician?” The four previous blogs have left no stones unturned.

Having become too cynical of the power and reliability of such recommendations, and being too out of touch with the technologically-driven modern world, I can only respond with all sincerity to this question with a second-hand experience from the recesses of my distant memory……

As a teenager entertaining the notion of pursuing a career as a physician, I was told this story by friends of the family who were desperately seeking a pediatrician to save their chronically ill twin daughters. The girls were suffering from chronic recurrent pneumonia, failure to thrive, and anemia; there was legitimate fear that they would die. The local pediatrician, having performed a huge battery of tests in order to decipher the underlying condition, finally referred the family to Doctor Mary Ellen Avery, a lung specialist at John Hopkins Medical Center, a giant on whose shoulders generations of pediatricians (especially females) would stand.


Dr. Mary Ellen Avery, center (Google Images)

Savior of the premature infant, Dr. Mary Ellen Avery (center) (Google Images)


Dr Avery was a luminary in her field — a world-renowned neonatologist who had discovered that deficiency of surfactant was the cause of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) in premature babies. The family travelled from northern New Jersey to Baltimore, MD, hoping that this famous woman and researcher could save their daughters. Dr. Avery reviewed the extensive medical files on the twins and shook her head. “I don’t know what to say,” remarked the brilliant woman. “Every test has been performed and everything is negative. But I think there is one last thing to try: Take the girls off milk and let’s see what happens. I think an allergy to milk might be the culprit.”

The parents agreed. “How can we make arrangements to pay you, Dr. Avery? We have no money, but we will set up a payment plan.”

“There is no charge,” argued the pediatrician. The parents insisted vehemently on payment and Dr. Avery finally broke down: “OK then, you owe me five dollars.” The parents were relieved by the token reimbursement — certainly cost-effective, even for the late 1960’s.

Needless to say, the recommendation worked and the twins were rarely sick again. The parents spread the tale of Dr. Avery’s kindness to every soul they could reach in northern New Jersey, including me. The family sent a Christmas card and updated pictures of the twins and their two older brothers to Dr Avery every year until she died, at the age of 84.

This simple little anecdote looms in my subconsciousness every day that I practice. A cure was effected by a wonderful pediatrician’s highly-seasoned intellect, intuition, and devotion to a poor, anxious, desperate family — for the sweet fee of five dollars! Although our paths never crossed, I feel that she was my pediatrician, too, and a distant mentor — at least in spirit — and that, like the song, I hope she’s “going my way, too.”

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

–from “Song of the Open Road” by American poet Walt Whitman.



President George Bush chose pediatrician Mary Ellen Avery as recipient of the National Medal of Science in 1991. (Google Images)

President George Bush chose pediatrician Mary Ellen Avery as recipient of the National Medal of Science in 1991. (Google Images)



(Google Images)