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Robert M. Goldwyn, M.D., Tribute

Constantian, Mark B. M.D.

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Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery: August 2010 - Volume 126 - Issue 2 - p 697
doi: 10.1097/PRS.0b013e3181e50482
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All of us who knew and admired Bob Goldwyn, I speculate, used to try to find some ways in which we were like him. So far, the only ones I have identified for myself are that our fathers were both physicians, and we both grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Bob's father and mine were members of the first generation of doctors that had any hope of actually curing anything. Before that it had been Osler's Medicine at best—diagnosis and prognosis, without any possibility of really making our patients better—on purpose, at least. But with our fathers' generation came arsphenamine for syphilis, rabbit antipneumococcal sera for lobar pneumonia, insulin for diabetes, vitamin B12 for pernicious anemia, and finally sulfanilamide, which itself created a scientific and social revolution. Physicians at last became able to alter the natural history of disease.

So what was it that people expected from their doctors before that? What were the patients of fourteenth-century physicians or the shamans of prehistoric periods hoping for when they called for the doctor? At the time of the great plagues in Europe, what on earth was our function when called out at night to visit the sick for whom we had nothing to offer even for palliation, much less cure? One thing these doctors did, that we physicians still do, is plainly magic. After the shaman went through his convulsions, saw visions, and heard voices, he came back to life, dancing around the bedside, chatting incomprehensibilities, and touching the patient everywhere. The doctor's oldest skill was the real professional secret, the touching—and the personal, private physician-patient relationship derived from these intimate interactions.

Dr. Goldwyn understood this relationship perhaps better than most of us, and not only practiced it but spoke and wrote about it. He never forgot the lessons of the time he spent with Albert Schweitzer as a young man, observing first hand what it was to minister to patients. The attitude and ethic of the physician, the sensitivity to the psyches of his patients, and the altruism were always the hallmarks and identifiable characteristics of his work.

Perhaps most remarkable for such a skillful surgeon was Bob's acknowledgment that there was such a thing as an unhappy patient or an unfavorable result in plastic surgery, especially because he probably had many fewer of them than the rest of us. This work culminated in the popular texts that he edited with Dr. Eugene Courtiss.

Bob was a mentor to me throughout my career, and gave me the type of wise advice that you can each imagine, always gently nudging me to develop the strengths that he had observed but that I did not recognize. And he did that for many of us. When the New England Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons established the Robert M. Goldwyn Lifetime Achievement Award last year and made Bob its first recipient, he said, “I do not really deserve this. But as Jack Benny said, ‘I have arthritis and I don't deserve that either.’”

As editor-in-chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery for 25 years and its chief editorialist, Bob was our specialty's historian and man of letters. He wrote warmly, relationally, and intimately. I told him more than once that he was the Samuel Johnson of plastic surgery, but he always said, “Oh, please.” I never convinced him, but I knew I was right.

Over the last 18 months while he had been sick, I called Bob often, just to check on him and offer encouragement. The best part of the call for me was waiting while it rang for him to answer, because he always did so in the most amazingly musical way, saying the word as if it had at least seven syllables, each one at a different pitch. “Hel-lo-o-o?” Though it may have seemed as if I were calling to make him feel better, the secret was that I really did it to make me feel better.

Bob would not have lived as long as he did without the loving ministrations of his exceptional wife, Tanya, who nurtured him and protected him. Thank you, Tanya, from all of us.

And thank you, Bob. We will all miss you profoundly. “Now,” as Edwin Stanton said of Lincoln, “he belongs to the ages.”

©2010American Society of Plastic Surgeons