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Saturday, July 23, 2022

IN MEMORIAM: James R. Roberts, MD


It is with a heavy heart that I tell you all that James R. Roberts, MD, died July 22. This is a loss for emergency medicine—he was a legend of the specialty, one of its earliest residents—but especially for Emergency Medicine News where he steered this ship for more than three decades with unparalleled expertise and genuine warmth.

This is a personal loss for me too; Jim was a great friend and mentor, supporting my work and my life, always going far beyond what was expected. He even sent my sons gifts every Christmas. He never met them, but he knew they are the most important people in the world to me, just like his daughter Martha and son Matthew were to him.

This is also a loss for everyone who was lucky enough to be his friend or colleague and for all of you who never met him but depended on his erudite, no-nonsense column every month. He wrote about everything, from fentanyl-laced heroin to urine dipstick testing (which was his most-read column of all time). Without fail, for more than 30 years, his InFocus column was always the most popular feature in EMN. I don’t think that was something Jim particularly cared about—he just wrote about what interested him and what he thought would be valuable to all of you.

I have to confess that sometimes he sent me columns that made me wonder if they would really appeal to emergency physicians, and every time—without exception—those were the columns that were best read. (See urine dipstick testing.) So much for my editorial intuition. But more to the point: He had a profound understanding not just of emergency medicine but what its physicians needed most.

He was also loyal beyond compare. More than 20 years ago, a former publisher was angry about something I had run in EMN, and Jim staunchly defended my decision. He was true blue and always saw the good in people. I never once heard him utter a harsh word against anyone, and that is no small thing to say about a person. I will forever be grateful for his support and the many acts of kindness he showed me over the 33 years I knew him. Everyone should have someone like Jim in her corner.

Jim was also modest, and this too is not an insignificant thing to say about someone. He had every right to have a monstrous ego given his accomplishments, but he always downplayed them and shared credit with others. You need only read what he wrote about his longtime friend and mentor David Wagner for evidence of that. (​​.) I could write those same words about Jim. Like he said about Dave, I often say to myself, “WWJD?” In this case, the J stands for Jim.

It’s difficult to pick a single example of who Jim was, so I’ll go back to the first one, the week I started as the editor of EMN, way back in 1989. I called Jim to introduce myself, opening with, “Hello, Dr. Roberts, this is Lisa Hoffman, and I’m—” and he cut me off, and said, “Call me Jim.” That disarming comment was just the first of many things that endeared him to me.

Jim loved to have people follow him in the ED at Misericordia, and I spent a day there in 1990. I watched him expertly drain an abscess, diagnose congestive heart failure in five seconds flat, and teach a resident the finer points of intubation. He juggled a dozen cases at once, some medical, some not, calling over his shoulder to me at one point, “It’s like a Fellini movie in here every day!” You know how pregnant women fall in love with their obstetricians? That was me: It filled me with awe and admiration to see him work with such clinical acumen and deep concern for his patients.

A few years ago, he started talking about retiring from EMN, and I cut him off just like he had when I introduced myself all those years ago. “You can retire when I do,” I told him, which was not really what he wanted to hear, but frankly I didn’t care: I knew I couldn’t do this without him, and it is a woeful feeling that now I have to.

It is the end of an era for emergency medicine and Emergency Medicine News, and I hope you will join me in honoring Jim by saying something kind to that resident who hangs on your every word, telling your colleagues how much you appreciate them, or dropping me a note to publish in EMN about what Jim meant to you.

Goodbye, Jim. This day came many, many years before I wanted it to, but I am richer for having known you, and I will always be in your debt.

Ms. Hoffman is the managing editor of Emergency Medicine News. Write to her at [email protected].

  • azerdocmom9:42:25 PMWhat a touching tribute, Lisa. I had the extraordinary pleasure and honor to have Jim as a guest on iCubed in December 2019. It was the first time I had met him, and he was everything you have described so poignantly. I'm immensely grateful for his impact on my career. Rest in peace, Dr. Roberts.
  • rotemfriede3:05:42 PMAn amazing teacher, colleague, and friend. He will be missed, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work and learn from him.