Physician builds young connections
It was not the kind of note a Children's Hospital pediatrician normally gets. But, then again, Dr. Fred Mandell is no ordinary pediatrician.
And so, at 3 a.m., Mandell climbed into a rental car and pulled out of his Billings, Mont., motel. Arriving at the Native American reservation at dawn, just as the note said to do, Mandell found Austin Two Moons's cabin and knocked on the door.
''There was a voice that said come in," Mandell remembered. ''I see this elderly gentleman sitting on this long chair. He has white hair and a ponytail and a plaid shirt on. He says, 'Who are you, white man?' It wasn't, like, 'What's your name?' It was the deeper question: 'Who are you?' "
''I said, 'I am the same as you, Indian. I am a human being,' " Mandell said, '' 'and I am here because your children aren't growing up to be tall trees. If we can speak as one human being to another, I'll stay. If not, I'll leave.' "
He was told to stay.
To understand who Mandell is you could read his 21-page resume, filled with hundreds of professional accomplishments, from his work with Mother Teresa, to his lifetime community service award from Harvard Medical School, to his once being named one of the city's best pediatricians by Boston Magazine.
You could speak with his co-workers and family, who tell how Mandell has a ''sixth sense" with his patients, often knowing what's wrong before reaching for his stethoscope. How he uses his ''signature" funny faces -- like putting his hands behind his ears -- and litany of magic tricks to make even the saddest patient smile. (That he resembles comic actor Gene Wilder only helps.) And how, in the middle of the night, Mandell can often be found in a lonely hospital ward, just keeping a patient company.
You could read his first novel, ''The One-Foot Waterfall," filled with anecdotes from Mandell's experiences as a young doctor in Japan, his work with leukemia patients, and his honorary induction into the Oglala Sioux tribe last summer.
Or you could simply ask Mandell why he has dedicated 35 years of his career to educating parents about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, not only in Massachusetts, but also on Native American reservations across the West, including Austin Two Moons's.''When I was an intern at Bellevue Hospital [in New York] a woman came into the emergency room carrying her baby. And her baby had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome," Mandell explained. ''We tried to resuscitate the baby and we couldn't. I remember the woman sitting in an examining room crying all by herself. We in the emergency room were going back and forth, doing all kinds of busy things. And she was there crying. And the cleaning woman put down her mop, and walked in there, and put her arms around that baby. Right around that mother."
''To me," he said, ''she was the doctor. She did what I should have done."
He learned his lesson well. Mandell now puts children at ease not only with his calm demeanor and slow, calculated motions, but also by getting to know them: It's not unusual for him to take phone calls from teenagers about life's problems, or for him to spend coffee breaks in his own waiting room, bouncing a baby on his lap.
He puts parents at ease by being, as Joan Lynch of Wayland put it, ''a bellwether. You knew if he was worried about something, it was important. He wouldn't sweat the small things."
Mandell's father, a tailor, once told him that he belonged to a family of menders. With that in his heart, helping thousands of children lead healthier lives hasn't been a labor at all, he said.
''When we touch the lives of other people we leave footprints," he said. ''When we touch the lives of children, the footprints are very deep."
Family: Wife, Eileen, and three adult children: Aaron, Jennifer, and Josh.
Hobbies: ''I spend a lot of time writing. I spend a lot of time with my kids. I think if I had to choose something it would be with my children. I think that's what I've done over the years."
His humor: At a Celtics game he was mistaken for Gene Wilder and asked by a fan for his autograph. Mandell played along and gave him one.
Secret ambition: To meet the Dalai Lama's physician. ''Because of the way he thinks about medicine. The way they look at the body -- and the way the winds are passing through the body. It's just a whole different way at looking at medicine. I feel that I want to know that."Most famous patient: The 28-inch-tall Katie Lynch, who gained fame for ''running" the first 26.2 feet of the 2001 Boston Marathon. Mandell was Lynch's doctor from birth, until her death at age 27. After Lynch's mother, Joan, delivered a second -- perfectly healthy -- child, Wyeth, at 8 pounds, 9 ounces, she showed him to Mandell with a look of concern. ''I wasn't used to a [normal-size baby], so I said to Dr. Mandell, 'He just doesn't look right,' " Lynch said. ''He told me, 'It's just, well, Mrs. Lynch, you go to extremes.' "
The Inside Scoop: Once again, as my editor Karen Weintraub pointed out, I "overreported" a story. Dr. Mandell was a truly great guy. But when I called him to set up our interview he told me I had to read his book before I showed up. Now, that's a lot to ask, considering how little I read and how much time it was going to add to my assignment (4 hours or so, plus the hour it took to find the book at a bookstore.) But I did it anyway. In truth, I'm very glad I read his book because it shed so much light on his life. It wasn't autobiographical, but there was plenty of him in it. And it made it tremendously easier when I met him at his Newton office. I could have written 2,000 words about him - I skipped just about all of the book, his Eagle feather ceremony, his kids' tales, etc. - but my dictate was for a measly 650. I turned in 740, which to me was a personal victory. Karen made it work, as usual. Mandell's a pediatrician, and he got me thinking about my pediatrician, Dr. Glines, who had an office just outside Melrose-Wakefield hospital. Everything in his office was old, including the doctor, who was bald with white side hair as far back as I could remember him. And I remember him vividly. I wonder if that's the norm. Anyway, he was gentle and moved slowly. He wasn't at all funny like Mandell, but I felt safe around him. The photo, by the way, is of Mandell and Katie Lynch at her college graduation. The story says he was her doctor "since birth," but that's an editing mistake. I think she was a few years old when she first saw him. No biggie. Mandell's touched a lot of lives, I should add. His story got e-mailed 22 times today, which is significant considering it's placement inside a section. It even tied the story about the a fake penis being microwaved as a gas mart, which says, well, I don't know what that says. But I'll take it.