“It’s a great opportunity, Abe. We’ll build something really important together. Think about it and get back to me”
IT was a short walk from the Stilwell Avenue train station to the Freed Hotel. The Atlantic Ocean nearby flung its sharp ocean breeze onto the two women walking together, and Marjorie shivered a little in her bright-pink coat.
Perele Schwartz was never a chatterer, but today even Marjorie was silent as they approached the boarding house. She had a lot to think about. Crumbs in pockets, Passover menus, Annie’s tears, and those unexpected words: “A mother needs her children, even more than they need her.”
The street was fairly quiet, though they could hear the plaintive sound of squawking seagulls swooping down over the water combined with the occasional truck rumbling by.
And then, with frightening suddenness, there was chaos. Rough voices shouting curses. The squeal of a bike’s tires going way too fast. The horrible sound of metal hitting flesh. The thud of a human body making harsh contact with concrete.
And Perele Schwartz’s agonized scream making awful harmony to Marjorie’s shouts, as a merciless hand jerked her pocketbook off her shoulder.
hen young families moved into Boro Park — which they were doing in increasing numbers, displacing the non-Jewish residents and expanding the borders of the Jewish area — one of the first issues parents dealt with was finding a pediatrician for their children. Very often, they were sent to Dr. Abraham Levine’s practice because, as mothers said again and again, “He gives every child so much personal attention.”
Which was not surprising: Abe had long before developed the very useful technique of compartmentalizing, focusing intently on whatever he happened to be doing, and putting all other issues and thoughts aside. So when staring intently into little Shmuel Katz’s left ear and writing the prescription for antibiotics to cure the otitis media he found there, he gave no thought at all to the intriguing meeting he’d had the day before.
It was only when the Schwartzberg baby’s routine checkup was cancelled that he had the leisure to think carefully about Dr. Harvey Sloan and the shocking offer he’d made yesterday.
loan was a heavyset man, broad-shouldered with dark brows that slashed over his forehead. He looked more like an aging boxer than the successful physician he was, head of a small hospital in New York’s Sullivan County.
After the first amenities, Dr. Sloan had explained the reason for the visit.
“I’ve heard great things about you, Dr. Levine—”
“Abe. Great things. And we’d like to make you an offer that I think you’ll find interesting.”
Dr. Sloan went on to describe Mercy General, the 80-bed facility he headed in the Catskills. The hospital was expanding, Dr. Sloan said, “And we’d like you to help us grow.”
Abe wasn’t a man easily shocked, but he was certainly surprised when he realized that Sloan was offering him a job.
“We have a busy pediatric ward, but we’ve just received a considerable donation to build an entirely new, 15-bed neonatal intensive care unit. It’ll be the first in this area, and we’re looking for pediatricians with extensive experience. I’ve been to medical conferences and have talked to colleagues, and they all said — go to Levine, he’s your man.”
“You want me to join the new NICU?”
“That’s right, you’d be working under Professor Steve Pollak, who’s agreed to head up the unit.”
Abe gave a little whistle. “Impressive.” Steve Pollak was quite a name in the world of pediatric medicine. Clearly, there was plenty of money there; Pollak wouldn’t come cheap.
“That’s right. We want the best. And,” Dr. Sloan smiled, “we’re willing to pay for it.”
Abe held up a warning hand. “Whoa, slow down. I assume this would mean relocating — and giving up my practice.”
“Of course. We’d pay for relocation costs, help you find a home, and give you all the training you’d need for our specialized services.”
The conversation turned both technical and financial. Abe had many sharp and piercing questions; Sloan seemed to have all the answers.
Both Dr. Sloan and Abe glanced at their Rolexes at almost the same time. The men shared a laugh; two busy physicians carving out time to explore something new and exciting.
“Well, you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. Relocating my family, closing my practice….”
“Yes, but think about the challenge of helping to build a new and very much-needed facility. Right now, we’re helicoptering out the most serious cases, and that’s got to stop.” He handed Abe a business card. “It’s a great opportunity, Abe. We’ll build something really important together. Think about it and get back to me.”
“Give me a few days, and I’ll be in touch.”
Now, with the patient cancellation giving him some unexpected quiet, Abe had the time to carefully consider the offer. Examine it from every angle. Look at the drawbacks… and the opportunities of this new adventure.
A new adventure…
They’d talked about the new, special neonatal units at the last conference he’d been to, and it had sounded exciting. If he joined Mercy General, there would be policies to be set, decisions to be made, teams to be created. And it would be an opportunity to help the littlest patients, to give a premature baby the chance to breathe, to live. Much more demanding — and much more exciting — than the usual pediatric round of ear infections and tummy aches.
And yet… his wife, on bed rest. His son Mutty, deep in his studies. Artie, searching for himself, trying to figure out the future. The twins, doing so well in yeshivah. A new baby in the offing. The hotel, such a part of their lives.
The office nurse knocked, asked if he was ready for the next patient.
“Give me two minutes, Mrs. Goldstein.”
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and picked up the phone.
“Hello, Abe. Got good news for me?”
“Well, not exactly. Not yet. I’m going to need a little longer to think about it. Family considerations.”
“We can hold off on finding someone until June, but after that….”
“I’ll get back to you before that.”
“Okay, Abe, you know where to find me.”
Abe hung up the receiver, his face a mask.
Abe’s nurse led in Mrs. Becker and little Leiby, whose teething was keeping him — and his weary parents — up all night. “Just one moment,” Abe said. He picked up his Rolodex and carefully stapled a business card onto one of its pages.
Dr. Harvey Sloan. Mercy General Hospital.
irst, there was pain, as Marjorie felt her shoulder yanked roughly backward, her pocketbook disappearing into the hands of a boy who raced away, laughing.
It was that laughter — the triumphant and merciless laughter of victors in a ruthless battle — that brought on the next wave of emotion: fury. A frenzied, overwhelming rage that sent her racing after them. She forgot caution, forgot that there were three of them, one on a bike that had already proved how dangerous it could be.
She forgot, also, about the figure lying on the sidewalk. Until that figure, Perele Schwartz, weakly called out to her.
She heard her name. “Marjorie.”
With an abrupt about-face, Marjorie ran back and bent over Perele, still lying face down on the sidewalk. “Mrs. Schwartz, are you okay? Can you get up?”
“I… I think so. Don’t leave me, Marjorie.”
Revenge would have to wait. “Of course I won’t.”
Marjorie pulled her into a sitting position. She looked in horror at Perele’s bloodstained face, and at the evil bruise already coming out on her cheek.
“The hotel isn’t far. I’ll go for help.”
“NO!” Perele’s voice came out quiet but firm. “Help me up. Don’t leave me here alone.”
Marjorie looked around, but there was no one to be seen. With no choice, she pulled Perele up on her feet, trying to ignore the injured woman’s groan of pain.
Somehow they made it to the hotel, with Marjorie half leading and half carrying Perele. She helped Perele sit down on an old wicker chair in the foyer, and, fueled by all the fear and frustration and anger of the past moments, she screamed for help, her voice echoing off all four floors of the Freed Hotel.
utty was focused deeply on his anatomy textbook when he heard a scream. Dismissing it as some neighborhood kids playing a little rough, he turned his attention back to his studies. But when the scream was followed by the babble of voices speaking Yiddish and accented English, he knew something was happening here in the hotel.
He took the stairs two at a time and found a crowd of noisy boarders milling around near the door. He slipped through them and found Mrs. Schwartz sitting in an old wicker chair, red smears of blood on her usually gentle face painting a frightening picture of violence.
Marjorie, standing next to her, turned and saw Mutty. “Quick, call the police!” she yelled.
When Mutty was growing up, he loved hearing his father’s stories of his wartime experiences. Abe had often spoken about keeping calm under the most frightening circumstances, of medics who ignored the hail of bullets around them to cooly assess the wounded and make life-and-death decisions without panic.
He took a deep breath. Paying no attention to the noise around him, he turned to Marjorie. “Miss Burton, please call an ambulance.”
Perele struggled to her feet. “No. I’m bleeding a little, that’s all. No ambulance. I will not go to the hospital.”
Mutty looked carefully at her face. Most of the blood was coming from a cut lip. Clearly, she was conscious. But could there be concussion? Were there any broken bones?
He made a decision. “Mrs. Schwartz, we’ll help you in, and you’ll be fine. But can I ask my father, Dr. Levine, to come and take a look to see if you need more care than we can give you?”
Perele gave a small nod.
Still speaking in that deliberately cool voice, Mutty turned to Marjorie. “Miss Burton, help me get Mrs. Schwartz into the parlor. I’ll stay with her, while you call and see if my father can get here quickly.”
While Marjorie phoned Abe’s office, Mutty asked all the boarders to leave the parlor. Mrs. Abrams, a motherly Hungarian woman, offered to help. Marjorie returned, panting, saying that Abe was just finishing an appointment. His secretary would reschedule the rest of his morning appointments, and he would come as soon as he could.
Mutty cleaned Perele’s face, painting the deep gash on her chin with iodine and placing a clean bandage on it. The terrible bleeding from her cut lip had stopped, and Mutty put a cold compress on it to help bring down the swelling.
Seeing that he’d done everything he could, he left Perele with the two women, warning Marjorie not to make a scene, but to keep Perele calm. He waited on the porch, relieved when his father drove up about 40 minutes later. Mutty gave his father a quick summary of the incident and what he’d done.
Walking in, they found the three women speaking quietly, sipping tea. “I’ve been well taken care of, Dr. Levine,” Perele said, her voice back to its normal even timbre. “Your son will make a fantastic doctor one day.”
“I know he will. I must admit, after speaking to Miss Burton, I expected to find you in much worse shape. Now, if the others leave for a few minutes, let’s just make sure that you’re right as rain.”
When he came out, there was a big smile on his face. “Good job, Mutty,” he said, with a proud glance at his son. “You handled this like any emergency medicine doctor. I’ve given Mrs. Schwartz a prescription for a mild painkiller and told her to stay in bed for the day. She should be fine.” He turned to Marjorie. “And how are you, young lady? Quite a scare you had.”
“I’m fine, Doctor. I just want to get those guys.”
“Well, you’re welcome to call the police, but I don’t think it will help much. They hardly pay attention to what they’d call a petty crime. This neighborhood is getting worse every day. Mutty,” he said, turning to his son, “please see to it that Mrs. Schwartz gets her medicine. I’ve got to get back to the office grind.”
Walking to the drugstore to get Perele’s painkiller, Mutty finally let his emotions wash over him: excitement, determination, a tinge of fear, but mostly a rush of vitality, of sheer life, that he’d never before experienced.
Then he thought about his future. The droning professors. The dry textbooks. The endless memorizing. The competition and anxiety.
And quietly, imperceptibly, something inside him shifted.
To be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 858)
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