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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Acts of Gratitude: Remembering A Doctor’s Heroic Care

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 26, 2018

This morning I got word that Dr. Robert S. Modlinger, the endocrinologist who saved my life, has died at 72. Here is the obituary giving the considerable accomplishments of his career. But Bob Modlinger meant so much more than that to me and to so many other patients, despite his own disabling medical issues.

This is the column I wrote a few years ago to thank him.

I’m too big a skeptic to put much faith in the circularity of life, with deeds done long ago coming round years later to haunt us or make us whole. But I began to think about the possibility recently, during a visit to Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. One of the lectures that day was about the art of listening to patients’ stories with an almost literary ear, as a way of treating them with greater insight and sensitivity.

The speaker was looking at things only from the doctor’s perspective. But it struck me that there are at least two sides to every medical story. And it got me thinking back 30 years, to when I was a young man dying of no apparent cause.

My symptoms then included listlessness, faint-headedness, an inability to climb stairs without resting and unquenchable thirst. Twice, I took home a jug for a 24-hour urine test, and both times I came back with an extra bottle on the side. It didn’t seem to signify much to my doctor. The heart was his specialty, and he kept doing electrocardiograms suggesting something wrong there, but no particular diagnosis. I wasn’t much interested, in any case. I was only 26 years old, but the idea of dying seemed perfectly fine.

Then one afternoonon my parents’ front porch, I stood up in front of my father and briefly passed out. My parents arranged for me to see an endocrinologist named Robert Modlinger, who got hold of my ample test records, phoned me, and started to talk in a strangely unmodulated voice. His wife April was also on the line, repeating my answers to his questions so he could read her lips. I learned later that he’d gone deaf a decade earlier, in his mid-twenties, when he was a student in medical school. Finally, he said, “I want you to come into my office. I think you have Addison’s Disease.” It sounded more like, “I THINK you have AHHHH-dison’s Disease.”

The idea of a deaf man diagnosing my problem by phone, when a seeing, hearing physician had repeatedly failed to do so in person, has stuck in my head ever since as the Miracle of St. Modlinger.

I went to see him on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in May when my blood pressure was 60 over 40. He spent three hours doing tests, asking questions, listening (that is, lip reading) and having the good sense to question more closely when my answers didn’t fit the evidence he was seeing. He confirmed that it was Addison’s Disease, a failure of the adrenal cortex that is fatal if untreated, and put me on the course of drugs I have taken ever since.

Within a day, I felt better, it seemed, than I had ever felt in my life. Within a few months, I was running five miles a day. I began to travel and to write articles, and later books, about the natural world, human behavior and other topics. In the years since, I have collected tarantulas in the Amazon, tracked leopards with !Kung San hunters in Namibia and trekked in the Himalayas of Bhutan in pursuit of tigers and a mythical beast called the migur. I remained Dr. Modlinger’s patient for years after the diagnosis, and he seemed to take vicarious delight in these far-flung adventures.

Eventually, though, I relocated, and we lost contact. My career in journalism gave me a garden for cultivating my native cynicism, and the business of making a living as a writer brought out an inclination to be blunt and not much good at social niceties. So when my oldest child announced a few years ago that he wanted to spend his life helping people, I said, “That’s a strange idea.” When he added, in college, that he had decided to become a doctor, I expressed horror.

“Think of the snot-nosed children,” I said. “Think of being stuck in an office seeing the digestive complaints, the migraine headaches, the depression, the vague symptoms of possibly imaginary origin.” I did not say, “Think about me on that Saturday afternoon in Dr. Modlinger’s office.”

In the face of this paternal discouragement, my son persisted, and it has been interesting to watch. He volunteered at a hospice and genuinely seemed to enjoy caring for people who were old, incontinent, terminal. I’d been telling him it was naïve, in modern medicine, to expect to get to know patients as much more than symptoms. Everything had become too impersonal. But then, by an odd coincidence, his childhood piano teacher showed up at the hospice and together they helped make her husband comfortable as he died.

I probably should have known that the stories of patients and the people who care for them can still circle together in strange ways. A few years ago, I looked up Dr. Modlinger to ask a question, and with April on the phone as always, he told me that on top of being deaf, he’d lost the vision in one eye and developed problems with his balance, forcing him to give up his practice while he was still in his 50s.

I expressed my sorrow. It seemed like a terrible loss, not least to his patients. And it seemed wrong that the doctor who had given me back my life should be losing the pieces of his. I thought gloomily of a book I used to read to my kids, Edward Gorey’s “The Dwindling Party,” in which the guests mysteriously vanish one by one.

When I phoned Dr. Modlinger again more recently, he was in a wheelchair. But he was also full of a characteristic quality of delight, bordering on ebullience. I reminded him of my miracle cure, and I could hear him beaming. “I must have been very good,” he said.

And he was. I thanked him for everything — that is, for keeping me alive long enough to marry, to travel, to write, to raise three fine children. In August, I told him, my son will become a medical student at Columbia.

“That’s wonderful,” he said. And the inexplicable note of happiness in his voice made me think that spending Saturday afternoons healing sick people might not be such a bad life, after all.


2 Responses to “Acts of Gratitude: Remembering A Doctor’s Heroic Care”

  1. Lisa Messmer said

    I wish there were more good doctors like your Good Dr. Modlinger. I have been searching for such a doctor for years, unsuccessfully, and now have a female physician whose sole mission it is to just take away my pain pills. I only have two a day, and have never asked for more, nor for anything stronger. She’s never asked me a single question about my fibromyalgia.. not when I got it. how I got it, anything about my symptoms, how bad they are, nothing. I’ve had it for 26 years. She has me listed as a chronic opioid or narcotic user, not a “responsible” user, on my records. And I’m told I signed a “pain management contract”, that means I have to see her for a year before I can seek another doctor. I refuse to see her again… I will not be entrapped in some contract with a such a doctor who wants me to go back to using ineffective OTC drugs for my debilitating pain. I think along with the framed degrees proclaiming what universities doctors graduated from that hang on the walls of their offices, we should also see where in their graduating classes doctors stood… did they graduated at the top? In the middle, or at the bottom of their class? Inquiring minds NEED to know. They all seem to hate informed patients and suffer from the God Complex. You were very lucky… RIP Dr. Modlinger. And best of luck to your son!

  2. We are losing them one by one, the doctors who care. It is so sad.

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