Before giving a recent lecture, I mentioned to my hosts that my father, Sydney P. Schiff, MD, FACS, had studied at their medical school, Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, during World War II. They quickly located the graduation picture on the library wall. In the photo, my father is seated, beaming from the front row and holding the class sign. I lamented the fact that they did not have the opportunity to meet him—my father has been long gone—and he seems today a larger-than-life character from a lost age. Asked to elaborate, I offered them a story from the Woodstock Festival of 1969, in Bethel, NY—one that poignantly highlights the striking metamorphosis that our society and medicine have undergone in the last half-century.
A call to serve
Dr. Sydney P. Schiff was a product of the World War II generation that cultivated an ethos of community engagement and public service. An epitome of such service was practicing medicine, and he surmounted considerable poverty-inflicted barriers to pursue our profession. After his internship, he commanded a U.S. Army hospital on Shemya Island in the Aleutian chain. With the war having just ended, he hurled himself into caring for the local Aleutian islanders. His black-and-white photographs of the lives into which he intercalated are haunting reflections of their mutual bond. Typifying what was to become a lifelong one-man rage against disease and injustice was his letter to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs complaining of our nation’s discriminatory policy of denying veterans’ benefits to Native Americans who had served the war effort in often covert roles. He (and in later years his colonel) was proud of his colonel’s infuriated threat that the Army could find a worse posting than Shemya for him if he ever wrote such an unauthorized letter again. I still have some of the crafted artifacts that the Aleut presented to him in gratitude for his years of devoted care.
When he returned to the mainland and completed his surgical residency, he settled with his wife Rose in a rural county, nailed up the shingle for his solo general surgery practice on Main Street in Liberty, NY, and started making house calls with a large black bag. For many years, he was the only Fellow of the American College of Surgeons in Sullivan County. Solo practice general surgery in the rural U.S. at the time would include substantial general adult and pediatric practice, and he did some forensic pathology on the side. Before Medicare and Medicaid, he typically charged low-income patients $2.00 a visit, explaining that “no one likes charity.” A constant stream of fresh local farm produce turned up on our front porch from his patients, for whom he was always on call.
On the ground
Novelist Eileen Pollack, then a local teenager, crafted a character, Doctor Rock, modeled after my father in one of her first published short stories in 1990, “Past, Future, Elsewhere,”* which paid homage to the battle he waged during the medical crisis of the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
Woodstock, with more than 400,000 attendees, rapidly overwhelmed all anticipated medical services. There were countless injuries, drug overdoses, and deaths—an event unlike anything that rural county had ever experienced.
When the New York State Police called my father about the evolving crisis at the music festival, he immediately closed his solo practice office. He had held a longstanding position as the county’s medical director of civil defense, so he ordered the release of the county’s emergency medical supplies, then stockpiled for the possibility of a nuclear war. Commandeering a local school gymnasium at Monticello, he set up cots, and with volunteers from nearby hospitals’ nursing staff, organized a field hospital. Well before civilian medevac (medical evacuation) helicopter services, and with roads impassable because of the throngs of people who abandoned cars and vans to walk to the festival site, the state police used their helicopters to transport injured concertgoers to his makeshift hospital for treatment and triage. Fittingly for his hands-on version of medicine, he flew on multiple flights, serving as the medical flight crew.
Much of the intake was routine trauma. He was a skilled orthopaedist and was typically in a fine mood and humming while applying plaster after setting fractures. I don’t think I have ever met a physician who enjoyed practicing their art as much as my father did.
Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) overdoses were a new challenge for him. He placed unmanageable patients in restraints and administered intravenous fluids until they returned to humanity. He treated this endless stream of muddy, injured, and exhausted patients for three straight sleepless days and nights, returning home only when these young people no longer needed his care.
None of what he did is unthinkable for a physician, although, admittedly, few of us today have the range of skills to handle such a broad spectrum of medical problems by ourselves. The relentless commoditization of health care and the pressures toward professional risk aversion would further complicate such efforts today. But most of us would hope we could have risen to the occasion and done our best if faced with a similar situation then or now.
No, the unthinkable contrast with today was the aftermath. He had performed perhaps the most heroic act of his professional life during the festival. Medicine was his creed—it was duty and religion—with the firm conviction that he was responsible for his actions. One day during the weeks after Woodstock, two New York Times reporters drove up from New York, NY, to interview him for a story that likely would have brought him fame for his service. But some deep-seated part of his soul felt that doing the interview would be completely wrong. It would have cheapened and demeaned devoted responsibility.
So, with little time left, he called his friend, an iron worker who lived down our country road, and convinced him to take off the rest of the day to go hunting. Timing his actions, he offered the reporters the silent image of him leaving the house in a red plaid jacket with a rifle slung over his shoulder, getting into his car, and driving away. He offered the most noble response he could think of after his most noble deed was done, albeit, without a horse or a sunset to ride into alone. Our family tried to explain what we could to the apoplectic journalists at the door.
His comment to me later was, “If you do something really good, don’t brag.”
I have spent my professional life thinking of that comment. It stands in such progressively stark relief 50 years later as our society changes. Recently, the New York Times reporter and columnist David Brooks eloquently wrote of “the basic modesty code that has always ennobled the American middle class: Don’t brag.”† His colleague Bret Stephens recently wrote of Neil Armstrong, “He stayed humble, and human, in the era of relentless puffery and self-promotion. This, too, feels as bygone as the Saturn V, The Right Stuff, and the ‘one small step’—and as missed.”‡ Would these two commentators, Brooks and Stephens, have appreciated being denied such a story?
Too many treasured facets from the culture of that generation, along with most who served with my father during Woodstock, are no longer with us. Despite the Woodstock era’s social radicalism and upheaval, no one at that time could have envisioned our trajectory toward a society increasingly screen-connected, self-glorifying yet interpersonally cold, and often irresponsibly detached. Despite a turbulent fracturing and partitioning of our democratic polis’ identity at that time in the late 1960s, our societal divisions seemed more readily bridged with empathy and compassion and a consensus call to action when people were suffering.
My father was only one of many who devoted their time and efforts to the young people at Woodstock. If you were one of the many patients he treated or are one of their descendants, he sought neither your thanks nor remuneration. But he would have been so very pleased to know that you have done well.
*Pollack E. Past, future, elsewhere. Ploughshares. 1990;16(1):69-89. Available at www.jstor.org/stable/40350355. Accessed December 20, 2019.
†Brooks D. Democrats win the summer. New York Times. July 29, 2016. Available at: www.nytimes.com/2016/07/29/opinion/the-democrats-win-the-summer.html. Accessed December 20, 2019.
‡Stephens B. How Neil Armstrong stayed humble. New York Times. March 14, 2019. Available at: nytimes.com/2019/03/14/opinion/apollo-11-documentary-neil-armstrong.html. Accessed December 20, 2019.