Getting sick when I was a kid in the 40s and 50s was a lot less complicated than it is today. There must have been specialists, but a typical family like ours trusted a family doctor for most run-of-the-mill illnesses. Our family doctor was Dr. Harry Brotman, who had a home office in Clinton Hill. As a matter of fact I think most of the doctors Weequahic Jews patronized were in Clinton Hill, a fancy neighborhood north of Clinton Avenue.
Dr. Brotman was literally a cradle-to-grave kind of guy and because our family was generally healthy, with nary a condition, he fit the bill perfectly. All the residents of our four-family house used him; and since we were mostly all related, it meant that he was truly our family doctor.
I am proud to say I was born at the Beth, meaning Newark Beth Hospital on Lyons Avenue. Its contemporary name is Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and it still commands the skyline of the South Ward. The hospital was founded in 1901 to provide Jewish doctors with a place to ply their skills. It became an anchor to our community. If someone was sick or had just given birth you didn’t need to ask where they were. They were at the Beth, of course.
It was Dr. Brotman who delivered me. And my sister three years later. And everyone of our generation at our Aldine Street house. He was the perfect guy for the job! He had a reassuring deep basso voice, always sounding calm and in control. And we knew that Dr. Brotman knew everything. Those were the days when it was an honor to be a doctor. Patients trusted their doctors, didn’t challenge them, and never Googled their conditions so that they knew more about their problem than their doctors.
And, of course, doctors carried their medical knowledge and equipment in their little satchels that they brought right into our home.
Whenever I was sick with a sore throat or ear infection, my mother would call Dr. Brotman and within hours he was ringing our doorbell. Now, this may have made my mother happy, happier than dragging a sick child onto the 14 Clinton Place bus. But it always made me really unhappy. I despised it when Dr. Brotman made a house call for me. I didn’t want him to examine me and, more than that, I didn’t want the inevitable penicillin shot. Not at all! I would become a terrified tyrant when he showed up, running and hiding, resisting arrest. It was not pleasant for me, Dr. Brotman, or my mother. My father in those days would never be found at home for such events. Nonetheless I survived childhood and Dr. Brotman survived me.
Looking back, however, it was the humaneness of the man that makes me remember him so fondly. My maternal grandfather, known as Pop, lived with us for many years. He was integral to our family unit and better than a third parent. I loved him very much in that special way that grandchildren bond with grandparents — surely the most nonjudgmental, unthreatening, loving relationship known to man.
When I was 20, I was engaged to be married. Many of us married young in those days, and a few weeks before the wedding our household was very busily making wedding arrangements when Pop suddenly became gravely ill. I can still see his blue-striped suit hanging in plastic on the closet door, ready for the wedding. It would never be worn. Not for my wedding. Not ever.
Pop had always been healthy and had a pronounced fear of hospitals. My mother called Dr. Brotman, who made one of his famous house calls. He wore a demeanor that sent dread through all of us. Pop was very sick. I was too young to be very medically aware but I think he diagnosed pneumonia.
My mother, understanding the gravity of Pop’s condition, asked Dr. Brotman if Pop could remain at home. Pop didn’t want the terrible T’s of dying — tubes and tests. He preferred to be surrounded by his loved ones in his own bed. Lovingly, Dr. Brotman agreed that there was nothing that the hospital could do for Pop. A few days later Pop died peacefully. The doctor couldn’t save his life, but he could, and did, save his death. For this we were grateful. And for this I am still grateful. Thank you, Dr. B. You were not always a welcome guest when you visited me at home but you came through for our family and allowed a beloved member to die with his dignity intact. You knew that less is often more.