Stimulate your neurons!

January 22, 2001

That&s the advice of a physician who has spent more than six decades caring for patients. She&s never actually billed a patient, but they have paid her, in more ways than one.

A Medical Economics Web Exclusive

"Stimulate your neurons"

That’s the advice of a physician who has spent more than six decades caring for patients. She’s never actually billed a patient, but they have paid her, in more ways than one.

By Talia Krohn

At a time when many doctors can’t wait to get out of medicine, others have made their profession a lifelong career. We profiled a number of them in an article that you can find on this Web site, "Still practicing after all these years," which appeared in our January 10, 2000 issue. Here we profile another one of these extraordinary physicians, Milly G. Halberstadt, who at age 89 is taking a "temporary leave" after 64 years in practice. She and her son Marc were interviewed by Medical Economics editorial intern Talia Krohn, who is now a junior at Trinity College in Hartford, CT.

Milly Halberstadt, a family practitioner in the small town of Malone, NY, always wanted to be a doctor–but the path was not destined to be a smooth one. Born to orthodox Jewish parents in Germany in 1911, she studied at universities in Frankfurt, Freiburg, Vienna, and Berlin. One of a small group of women in medical school, and one of the very few to make it all the way through, she graduated with high honors in 1935. She soon earned an internship at a university-affiliated hospital in Berlin, at a time when Adolf Hitler had declared that only 10 internships in the entire country would be awarded to non-Aryans. Her student ID card at the University of Berlin had a yellow stripe identifying her as a "non-Aryan."

As the anti-Semitic fervor swept Germany, it became clear that her Jewish heritage would prevent her from practicing medicine in her native country. With the help of friends and relatives, Milly emigrated to the United States just a few months before the Nazi regime tightened its hold, making it virtually impossible for Jews to escape. In October 1937, a year before Kristallnacht, she arrived in New York City, where she wasted little time obtaining her medical license and getting a volunteer position with Good Samaritan Hospital. She resumed a relationship with, and soon married, a childhood friend, Joseph Halberstadt, who held a doctorate in chemistry. A job change for Joseph took them north to Malone, a town of about 10,000 in the "North Country," nestled against the Canadian border. There she set up a medical practice in the basement of their home.

And there she has been ever since, on her own in practice, and on her own at home since Joseph’s death in 1972. Sixty years of practice and thousands of patients later, her days of seeing patients are finally drawing to a close. But this twice board-certified physician isn’t ready to give up medicine just yet. "I didn’t officially retire," she says. "But I’m not practicing at the moment. I think retirement is the worst thing to do unless, of course, it becomes necessary. The best way to stay young is to work."

Halberstadt was honored by the American Academy of Family Physicians in 1998 for her lifetime contributions to the practice of family medicine. Last year, the AMA bestowed a Certificate of Merit recognizing her more than 50 years of service to the profession. When she was interviewed by her hometown newspaper, The Malone Telegram, she said, "If someone offered me a choice–to have $100,000 or to continue working—I’d choose working. Stimulate your neurons."

A month later, the Telegram received a letter from a former patient who had moved to Louisiana and had seen the article about her: "Even though I have been away from home in Trout River for many years, I will always remember her," the patient wrote. "Her firm but warm professional manner and wide knowledge base never seemed taxed or burdened no matter how many patients were in the waiting room… I remember her calling our home (and I’m sure many other patients’ homes) in the evening to check on a family member’s condition if she had concerns."

Retired or not, Halberstadt’s career has been nothing short of exceptional. As her son Marc recently discovered, his mother never billed people for her services. "A lot of patients couldn’t afford to pay," he explains. "I remember people bringing us carrots, milk, and fruit instead of money. Once, someone brought kosher food for Passover. She never had a secretary, never had billing stationery. Actually, I don’t think she had any stationery, period."

Milly’s attitude toward collections was philosophical: "If they are honest, they will pay. If not, it is a waste of a postage stamp."

As her son recalls, "Money didn’t come up a lot in conversation. My parents were extremely frugal. It was a different era."

Marc also remembers the devotion his mother had for all her patients. "She practiced day and night, refusing to turn patients away," he says. "This sometimes meant going out 30 miles in the country at 30 degrees below zero at 3 o’clock in the morning to deliver a baby." Patients appreciated her dedication, and to them she was always "Dr. Milly."

But perhaps the most amazing thing about Milly Halberstadt is her impeccable record. "I never lost a baby or a mother," she recalls. "I never had a malpractice case, never had a flaw on my license or credentials." Her son says his mother attributed this good fortune to the power of her prayers.

"We lived near a Mohawk Indian reservation," he remembers. "Once, an Indian woman had a premature baby and brought it to her doctor. He said it would die shortly. The mother then went to a specialist in Montreal; the baby was given a couple weeks to live. As a last resort, she came to my mother, who gave unorthodox medication and started praying for the baby. The baby survived. I asked my mother later what medicine she had used to save the baby’s life, and she replied, ‘It wasn’t the medicine. It was the prayers.’"

Whether it’s through competent and skillful medical technique, or through compassion and prayer, Milly Halberstadt has made a lasting difference in the lives of her patients.

 



Talia Krohn. Stimulate your neurons!.

Medical Economics

2001;2.