Dr. Steven Fries was just 55. He was my pediatrician, personal doctor, adviser and friend for fifteen years. One late December morning this beloved Brooklyn pediatrician didn’t wake up, and his passing has left a deep and irreplaceable personal and communal void.
My initial shock on hearing the news was punctuated with incredulity – it was impossible to believe that such a person, a figure almost larger than life, was no longer alive. His humor alone possessed such force, such vitality. The depth of his competence, the scope of his achievements, the countless number of people who relied on him made the thought of his passing inconceivable. How can it be? As my twelve year old daughter said upon hearing the news, “But he was a doctor, how could he have died?”
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The pain I experienced over the subsequent days was intense and bewildering. It was as if a close family member had passed away. In between tears I would close my eyes and see him.
I saw him in his office. He would stand in the hallway flicking tongue depressors (his trademark shtick), greeting each patient who opened the creaking door with “Go home.” I saw him in the blue room for my child’s check-up. “I see your mother let you live another year,” he’d say. Then he would mischievously look at my son’s or daughter’s chart and mutter, “How can I hurt you today?”
I saw him in his little makeshift lab running tests. “You’re thriving in spite of your mother’s care,” he’d joke as he read over the lab results. I saw him in the pink room squeezing a few droplets of solution into a strep culture and sing in a jocular voice, “I hate children!” One time one of my sons had replied, “Then why did you become a doctor for children?” “So I can hurt them!” he bantered in return.
I would close my eyes and see Dr. Fries in my home, too. He wasn’t just our family doctor; he was our family friend. The meals he ate at our home on Shabbos and Yom Tov were extensions of the time we spent in his office. Dr. Fries at work was the same Dr. Fries at home. The tongue depressors that flew in his office were the same ones that flew over my dining room table on Shabbos.
I would close my eyes and see him pull out my daughters’ ponytail holders. I would hear him regale us with stories of freaky medical cases, incompetent (and, of course, anonymous) mothers, and his own children’s accomplishments. He had a minhag to break his fast with us Motzei Yom Kippur, and before he’d leave I’d always manage to pin him down for another meal on Sukkos. This past Sukkos he even stayed after the meal to take a nap in our Sukkah, since he didn’t have a private one of his own. The mitzvah meant that much to him.
All mitzvos resonated with Dr. Fries. He didn’t wear his religion on his checkered sleeve. It was the bedrock of all his actions and the basis of his approach to medicine. His was a genuine religiosity – which included a gartel, minus a hat. He often injected divrei Torah into patient visits, revealing a vast wealth of Torah knowledge. His steady morning Gemara shiurim were as regular as the coffee that went with them.
When his secretary booked his afternoon appointments, they were always scheduled around the 2:00 Mincha at Landau’s shul. Dr. Fries was a fixture at Landau’s. When my husband would attend a midnight Maariv there, he would discreetly wave to Dr. Fries in his makom kavuah, where Dr. Fries ended his day in the same place it began.
Dr. Fries recognized the supreme power of tefillah and always encouraged his patients to direct their prayers to Hashem. He saw himself as Hashem’s shaliach, and anyone who benefited from Dr. Fries’s uncannily brilliant and intuitive diagnoses was instructed to do the same. Whenever he made a diagnosis, especially one that many other doctors who preceded him had missed, he never took the credit for himself. He always attributed it to Hashem and never failed to invoke His name.
With such an attitude, it was no wonder Dr. Fries had a thriving practice. His patients directed all their concerns to Dr. Fries with the confidence that needed no second opinion. Indeed, it was to Dr. Fries that so many people went for a second opinion. Once, when Dr. Fries sent my daughter to a dermatologist, the dermatologist greeted me with the pronouncement, “If Dr. Fries sent you to me, this must really be a case that is difficult to diagnose!”
He was a healer not only of the body but of the mind and heart as well. He was as concerned with each patient’s emotional well-being as he was with his or her physical health. His words of advice on parenting were wise and universal, and his insights into human nature were as astute as his medical interpretations.
Dr. Fries also had an unconventional approach to medicine. He never scoffed at alternative medicine and often recommended such remedies for his patients. When my youngest son suffered one ear infection after another, Dr. Fries was adamant about avoiding tubes in his ears. He sent me to a chiropractor and even resorted to herbs as a preventative measure.
The owner of a nutrition store was amazed when I told him that my pediatrician sent me to buy vitamins and herbs for my son’s ear ailment. “What’s his name?” he demanded to know, “I’ve never had a pediatrician direct a patient to me before. I must find out who this doctor is.”
Dr. Fries’s recommendations for my son’s ear infections worked, just as all his other prescriptions for health did. Like my son, hardly any of his patients ever succumbed to having tubes in their ears to treat recurrent infections. He was the one doctor I trusted implicitly.
The parents of his patients directed their medical inquiries to Dr. Fries too, who never hesitated to assist them. I never had reason to doubt any of his medical methods, because each one always turned out to possess the right diagnosis and the right treatment. He used to tell me, “If I’m not worried, then you shouldn’t be worried.” And those words worked as a magical cure for my concerns.
Dr. Fries possessed a kindness to match his intellect. He was the antithesis of a materialistic man. With his white lab coat over jeans and checkered shirt, medicine was not a means for wealth but a means to serve those in need. He frequently refused to accept even a copay from those who struggled financially, waving them out of the office and bidding them to “take your kids out for a pizza.”
He would spend hours with a patient if he thought it was warranted, regardless of the loss it might incur. When I would bring him a present for Chanukah and a gift on Purim, he would receive it with the most emphatic reluctance. “Why are you doing this?” he would say. “I don’t deserve it.”
And he always thought of others. Two days before he was niftar, I had a double check-up for two of my sons. I related how I had just seen an acupuncturist, and Dr. Fries eagerly wrote down her name and number to give to another patient. His secretary of many years, who had to leave because of medical complications, was the recipient not only of his medical expertise but of his devotion as well. Five years after Claire left, Dr. Fries continued to call her every Friday to wish her a Good Shabbos. “It’s as if my own son has died,” Claire confided to me upon hearing the devastating news of his death.
Yet for all his brilliance and expertise, Dr. Fries was a humble and unassuming man. When a plaque proclaiming him one of New York’s best pediatricians appeared in his office a year ago, he sheepishly admitted he’d been receiving them almost annually, and it was his kids who urged him to finally display one.
Whenever I had an emergency, I knew instinctively that I could count on Dr. Fries every step of the way, no matter how much time he would have to invest. I also knew that his recommendation of any specialist was the best of those available.
It was not an easy feat for someone to be recommended by Dr. Fries. He was as exacting with others as he was with himself. He had little tolerance for inferior doctors, and he had even less tolerance for inferior or neglectful parents. He was so devoted to the welfare of children that he would not sacrifice their well-being for the sake of civility.
This genuine devotion to all children was nowhere as evident as with his own. He adored his son and two daughters, and the love and admiration he had for them were the focal point of his life. Their accomplishments became his accomplishments, and he would glow with pride when he would share them with his patients. If his cell phone rang during an office visit, it would inevitably be one of his kids sharing a test score or inquiring about getting together
Dr. Fries was a man of simple taste but a professional of the highest degree. Anyone who passed through the doors of his office entered a world of whim and jocularity, yet at the same time one of utmost medical skill, proficiency and caring. The outpouring of sorrow at his funeral from the overflow crowd was a tribute to the doctor – the man – so many of us had grown to depend on and love.
Sara Lehmann, formerly an editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, is currently a mother and freelance editor residing in Brooklyn.