Categorized | Suffolk Close-up

A Caring Hand

Posted on 30 August 2013

A couple of weeks ago, a celebration was held at the East Hampton home of Lenny and Julie Ackerman honoring the staff at Stony Brook University Hospital Heart Institute for the care they gave when Ms. Ackerman suffered a heart attack and stroke last year.

At the event were 200 people including the doctors and other staff members of the Heart Institute who cared for Ms. Ackerman; other doctors and medical personnel from the hospital; the president of Stony Brook University, himself a physician; area doctors with links to the hospital; and just plain folks from the East End.

Mr. Ackerman, an attorney, said he wanted to “introduce the leadership of Stony Brook Medicine to our community.” He declared, “Stony Brook was there for us and everyone who needs them…I was delightfully surprised to find this level of care so close to home.”

The Ackermans are not alone in being impressed by the extraordinary care they received at Stony Brook University Hospital. It’s been the experience of my family, too, and through the years I’ve heard glowing reviews about the hospital from many people.

And that has much to do with the man who founded the hospital and created the remarkably caring culture there­which continues. Dr. Edmund Pellegrino passed away two months ago after great successes not only at Stony Brook but at Catholic University of America, where he later became president, at Yale’s Medical Center and at Georgetown University, where he was a professor for three decades. He taught up to his death a week before his 93rd birthday.

At Georgetown, too, Dr. Pellegrino established and directed the Center for the Advanced Study of Ethics. He was considered a founder of the field of bioethics which has been defined as the study of ethical questions arising in the relationship between medicine, life sciences, biotechnology, law, politics and philosophy. Nationally, he chaired the President’s Council on Bioethics and, internationally served on UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee.

Dr. Pellegrino’s story is about what taking care of sick people and teaching medicine should involve, and about a highly spiritual individual — as the National Catholic Reporter noted in its obituary for him, he went to mass daily and saw his Catholic faith as the most “important unifying element in my whole life” — and also about prejudice.

I got to know Dr. Pellegrino after he was hired in 1966 to be vice president and establish what was to be Stony Brook University Health Sciences Center — a complex to include a hospital, dentistry school, nursing school, school of social welfare and a medical school, of which he would be dean.

The top administrators of Stony Brook, its president and executive vice president, were physicists and not familiar with medical care or education, but New York State wanted the university to have these components. And what a person was selected for this job.

I still vividly remember Dr. Pellegrino recounting, as I wrote as a reporter for the Long Island Press about his plans, how he was refused admission to medical schools despite having excellent grades at St. John’s University. The son of Italian immigrants, he spoke of a letter he received from one Ivy League school complimenting him on his grades but saying he would be “happier” with his “own kind.” Italian-Americans, he was told by his academic advisor, were not welcome at major medical schools and suggested he change his last name. He refused.

His father, who was in the wholesale grocery business, serviced a restaurant near NYU at which the dean of NYU Medical School was a regular customer. Its owner introduced him to the dean, young Pellegrino applied to the school and was accepted.

Dr. Pellegrino’s dream of what the Stony Brook Health Sciences Center — its hospital and educational components — centered on it integrating medical sciences with the humanities and social sciences. Moreover, the hospital was to be patient-centered, personal, nurturing and caring. He maintained that medicine is a moral enterprise with a doctor having a “covenant” with his or her patient. Well before the rise of “managed care” and its bean counters, Dr. Pellegrino was dissatisfied with the direction medicine was taking, turning health care, he told me, into a commodity, a business. Stony Brook, he said, would be different.

Dr. Pellegrino, the author or co-author of 23 books, left a legacy there. Stony Brook in a statement last month about Dr. Pellegrino’s death described him as a “visionary.” And his vision lives on — to the great benefit of Long Islanders and other people.

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