Suburban Soliloquy #78


Doctor Sobel

To many he was a saint. The Doctor Samuel Sobel stories were often repeated whenever people who knew him were gathered together. His good works might not have been far reaching. He applied his medicine in a small area of the Bronx, performing accomplishments anonymous to the rest of the world. Hearing the stories of him across the decades, I can imagine him as one of the tzaddikim nistarim (also called the Lamed Vuvniks), these being thirty-six righteous men of Jewish folklore for whose sake the world escapes destruction, because their existence justifies the purpose of mankind to God. They neither know each other, nor are they aware of their role, and when each dies, another is born. Doctor Sobel was a righteous man, a blessing to those in his care.

I have no direct memory of the man. He delivered me. He took care of me through a number of childhood illnesses and saved my life with surgery when I was just three and a half. But my family moved from the Bronx when I was five. Still, I remember his house among the towering apartment buildings. It was a large, brick home that faced out across Pelham Parkway.

My sister is six years my senior. She remembers Doctor Sobel as the kindest and gentlest of men. When she had tonsillitis, she cried when Doctor Sobel prepared to give her a shot. "Why are you crying?" he asked. "I don't want a shot," she replied. "Don't be silly, it will all be over before you can count to ten." So my sister began to count, "one...," and it was over before she reached two. After that she was never bothered by injections.

My older sister did not have the honor of being delivered by Doctor Sobel. As my mother explained to me, when my sister was born in 1945 at Doctors' Hospital in Manhattan, the pediatrician charged $300 for the delivery, even though my mother doesn't remember him being there. He had been annoyed with her going into labor at night when he needed his sleep. He then advised my mother that she would need to find another doctor to provide for the newborn's care. When I came, in 1951, Doctor Sobel, my mother's new doctor, charged $50 (or maybe it was $75) and this covered both the delivery and first year of care. The doctor delivered a lot of babies in that neighborhood.

Harry and Helen, the neighbors downstairs who had recommended Doctor Sobel to my parents, told the story of Harry's sister-in-law. Following a miscarriage, the sister-in-law was told by her doctor at the time that it would be too dangerous for her to have children. Desperate for another answer, they found their way to Doctor Sobel, who told them that of course she could have children. Her job was to get into a family way and he would see as to the delivery.

The sister-in-law became pregnant. The doctor told her the fetus was healthy, with an exceptionally strong heartbeat. In the ninth month, rather than allow a natural birth, Doctor Sobel performed a cesarean. He lifted from her a healthy boy to show the mother and was taking the newborn into the next room when the nurse called out, "Doctor, there's another one in here." She had twins and both boys grew to be over six feet tall, while the father was only five. He came to refer to his son's as Sobel's miracles.

I was a difficult delivery. As my mother tells it, my shoulders were too wide. The doctor had to cut her and a mask for ether was applied. My mother, never having had ether, didn't realize she was allergic to it. That discovery came on the operation table.

I was born shortly after midnight. The next morning, when Doctor Sobel visited, my mother bantered with him, proudly crediting her self for having me early enough for the doctor to get home and catch some sleep. The gracious Doctor Sobel thanked her for this consideration, but after he had departed, the nurse revealed that he had stayed and watched over her the entire night, concerned about the stitches and her reaction to the ether.

For this essay, I took my mother to dinner at Café con Leche in Newtown. A very nice, little restaurant down an alley way, entered by a back door, then several steps down into a cozy basement. Together we reviewed the tales I had heard before, while she ate the roast pork loin and I the chicken Marsala.

"He never turned anyone way. On weekends his office was filled with poor Latin Americans, people who other doctors in those days would not see."

She retold the story of friends, a young couple, whose little boy developed a fever of 105-106 degrees Fahrenheit. They were in a panic, but it was late at night and their own doctor wouldn't come. They called four more without success until they reached Doctor Sobel. Sobel came and quickly grasped the seriousness of the child's condition. They packed the child in ice and rushed him to the hospital for surgery. Afterwards, Sobel told the parents to call their own doctor, because he would be more familiar with the patient. Meanwhile, the hospital's intern told the father that it was Doctor Sobel he had to thank for the boy's life.

When their regular doctor arrived, he would not begin until he was paid. The father, who had only slipped on pants and thrown a coat over his pajamas to get to the hospital, did not bring his checkbook. The hospital office had to supply the father with a counter check, and only then did the father realize he hadn't offered to pay Doctor Sobel. Later, he contacted Doctor Sobel. Sobel replied, "Did I ask you for money?"

"That was just like him," said my mother. "He knew when families were struggling to earn a living. He would say, 'When your husband's business is doing better you can pay me.'" He said as much to my mother when my father's business was having difficulties.

But not everyone in the community trusted Doctor Sobel. What kind of doctor didn't wear a suit and tie, was not always clean-shaven, and didn't drive around in a Cadillac or some similarly fancy car? Doctor Sobel drove about in a little, red, two-seater roadster that, from my mother's description, sounds like it was the MG T-Series.

Then there was the hypochondriac neighbor. She didn't like Sobel at all. She had visited him just once, deciding her doctor was too far away. But after examining her, Doctor Sobel refused to prescribe her any medication, telling her there was nothing wrong with her. "What kind of doctor doesn't give you medicine?" she complained. Her own doctor gave her plenty of medicine, so she went back to him.

There is a dark story, too. It is a rumor that he had his license suspended for doing the kind of surgery that the Supreme Court has since declared legal in the United States. He was a good man, whose open-mindedness put him ahead of his time for tolerance and understanding; according to the rumor he spent those next few years abroad.

There were plenty of nights when I was sick, my mother tells me, and the doctor arrived, like the father in my earlier story, with his jacket and pants thrown over his pajamas. To reassure my parents, he stayed until my fever would break. He did this so often, he'd make his own coffee in their kitchen. "He would finish his examination," my mother described, "then he would take the time to light his pipe before giving the diagnosis." And she told me there was a time when she was sick, but she could smell the smoke of his pipe coming from the living room and she felt safer.

There are more Doctor Sobel stories than space here permits. I have retold these few to remind my readers that at any given time there exist good people in the world. If we have not yet destroyed ourselves, it is because of them.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is number 78 in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"