“Fred” – Interview with and thoughts about Dr. Fred Epstein
by SCTA Volunteer Joanne Glosser Jaeger
Editors note: Below are highlights of my interview with Dr. Fred Epstein, world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon who operated on many of us in the SCTA, myself included. As we all agree, Fred is a wonderful, caring man who was always most helpful, a great surgeon, and most importantly, put all of our minds at ease, made us feel comfortable, and secure. He returned phone calls right away, readily gave out his home number, and insisted on being called Fred, rather then Dr. Epstein. All of his staff was extremely loyal and dedicated to his patients as well.
In my case, I was diagnosed with a spinal cord tumor, and my whole life was turned upside down in a matter of a few minutes. My sister-in-law, a nurse, was located at BIN at the time. She walked over to Fred’s office. He came right out and saw her. He said to have me bring my MRI’s over tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM, and tell me not to worry, these things are usually benign. The next morning, Fred took one look at my MRI’s and said his famous words. “Don’t worry, I’ll take it out. You’ll live to be 100.”…
First of all, can you give us an update on how you are doing these days? We all care deeply about you, and want to know how you are physically, and what you are doing now.
I’m doing pretty well. I really wish I would get better faster but I’ll have to take it as it comes.
Are your retired? Writing? Consulting?
I am NOT retired. I still get multiple emails and I do respond to them. I do not write much because I have been out of circulation for three years and I do not want to bore people with the past. My major problem is I cannot seem to get malpractice insurance. I need this in order to see patients.
What is your favorite place to go on vacation?
My favorite place to go is Florida. The kids come down and we really have a good time.
What kind of books do you like to read?
With regard to books I read a variety. I like non-fiction a great deal. They really educate me a great deal. I have read everything about the present administration. I am presently reading Tim Russert’s book about his father. It is really very interesting. I also read fiction thrillers.
How has the accident changed your life from being the NS to being the patient?
The accident has not changed me much.
How many doctors have you trained?
I have trained approximately 25 pediatric neurosurgeons. These are individuals who spent one year after training in neurosurgery. Others have spent six months with me as part of their training. There are an even larger number of these individuals.
What is your philosophy in life?
My philosophy is simple and it may be combined with what I want people to think. I think that most people can be helped (my optimism).
When people say Dr. Fred Epstein what do you want people to think of?
I want people to associate my name with help.
Do you have any regrets being NS?
I have no regrets with becoming a neurosurgeon.
Why did you get into spinal cord tumor research and surgery?
I got into spinal cord surgery because no one else was doing it and I thought it would be helpful
Why do you think that area is so unknown, and overlooked?
The reason that it remains a relatively unknown area is that it’s a very rare disease.
What would you like to say to people diagnosed with spinal cord tumors?
The only thing I would like to say to all the survivors is you could be helped. A few years ago I was only the one doing the operation. Now many neurosurgeons are doing it and doing it very well. The whole era has changed for the better. This is a time of great hope. “There is a lot we can do. All you have to do is not give up the ship.”
Fred J. Epstein, MD – Biography
Click here for link to Bio
Fred Epstein was born in Yonkers, New York, the second of three children, a child of a psychiatrist and psychiatric social worker. He grew up in a household that thrived on intellectual and creative energies and fostered idealism, concern for fellow human beings and a strong sense of charity.
In high school, Fred was a student leader, being president of the senior class, president of the student council and captain of the football and baseball teams.
In football, Fred was a star defensive player and punter and received city and state recognition for athletic accomplishments. Upon graduation, he received the trophy which was awarded to the graduating student that most exemplified leadership, sportsmanship and scholarship.
After graduating from college in 1959 and entering New York Medical College, it was his long-term goal to follow in his father’s and mother’s footsteps and become a psychiatrist. However, during a neurosurgical rotation while a third year student in medical school (on the service of Isiodore Tarlov, M.D.), he became excited by neurosurgery and, at that time, made the career decision to pursue training in this specialty. With the support of Dr. Tarlov and Dr. Elliot Hurwitt (who was Chief of Surgery at Montefiore Medical Center), he was accepted to the training program of Joseph Ransohoff, M.D. at the New York University Medical Center where he trained in neurosurgery from 1965 until 1970.
Just prior to completion of training, Dr. Ransohoff invited Fred to stay on in the position of assistant professor and to develop a service in pediatric neurosurgery. By coincidence of time and place, there were a “nucleus” of other neurosurgeons who had completed training at around the same time and were interested in pursuing pediatric neurosurgery. They encouraged one another in this pursuit and the most important ones in terms of developing a specialty of which Fred was a part, were Harold Hoffman, M.D. in Toronto, Luis Schut, M.D. in Philadelphia, and the senior member of the group at that time, Anthony Raimondi, M.D. who was Chairman of Neurosurgery at Northwestern University.
He is past president of the ASPN, ISPN, and the Pediatric Section of the AANS. He was the Founding Director of the Fred Epstein Div. of Pediatric Neurosurgery at the New York University Medical Center. In 1996, he moved the Pediatric Neurosurgical Services to the Beth Israel North Medical Center and became the Founding Director of the Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery at that institute. While continuing to operate on about 150 brain and spinal cord tumors each year, he has become a very strong supporter of the concept that technology must be “married to humanity” in the construction of a healing environment for children as well as their families. In this endeavor, he has explored other treatment and supportive modalities for his patients, which have included music therapy and programmatic play, as well as stress reduction through meditation and yoga classes. He has continued to emphasize that we must no think so much of a health system, but of a healing system. While technology and state-of-the-art surgery are indispensable and irreplaceable, we must integrate other programs to provide the best environment for recovery of our patients.
He has been married to Kathy for over 35 years, and they have five children; Samara, Ilana, Jason, Joey, and Benjamin.
Memories of Fred:
Dr Epstein former patients:
I met you in August 2000 due to a second Ependymoma. You were my ray of sunshine through a very dark and scary time. You had a way about you that told me everything was going to be all right and I just knew it would be. You are compassionate and caring and if I can do anything for you……. Just say the word. I pray that you are doing well. Love you lots!!
~ Doreen Sprague, Massachusetts
Dr. Epstein gave me hope when I didn’t have much. He was so reassuring and positive when I spoke with him. I had never been to New York City, much less for surgery on my spine, so his positive outlook gave me and my family comfort. He spoke to me personally each time I called, and before long, I had a new friend (not to mention the best surgeon in the world!). Thanks Dr. Epstein, you are the best!
~ Ed Staton
I was diagnosed with my spinal cord tumor in 1997. It was one of the scariest challenges of my life. The prognosis from my local doctors was very negative but recommended that we send my MRI’s to you for your opinion. When you called that afternoon, you were so positive and kind. You finished the conversation by giving me your phone number and saying to call you at home, knowing my wife would have questions when she came home from work. And we did, and again you were so patient and kind. I had never had a doctor give me his home telephone number. I remember asking if I should cancel my vacation plans for that summer. You instructed me to keep them. You did the operation; I did well and was able to have a wonderful vacation with my family. I am still doing well today because of the miracle you worked.
~ Bob Brandom
I don’t know if you remember me, I was your patient in 1981. Thank you, Dr. Epstein, for the gift of time. Best wishes and many thanks.
~ Arlene and family!
I would like you to know how extremely grateful and thankful I am that you came into my life and successfully removed my tumor, after my first surgeon told me to get my life in order. After my first surgery (biopsy) than during radiation one day I read a story in reader’s digest about a boy from England who had a tumor removed by Dr Fred Epstein. Little did I know you would be operating on me nine months later. God really does look out for us. I wish you good health and best wishes for you and your family. I will always be thankful I found you.
~ Karen Altman (c2-t3 astrocytoma, 1992)
Even before you performed surgery on me in Feb. 2001, you imprinted my life. You walked into the room, I looked into your eyes, we shook hands and I felt trust. You have a presence about you that is a gift from God. Blessings and peace.
~ Pat Baxter
Dr. Epstein you are a hero and a role model in our family! You not only saved our little Brittany’s life, but the kindness you showed us continues to inspire all of us to try to treat everyone we meet with graciousness. Eight years after Brittany’s last surgery, she is a very active 10 year old. She is enjoying her first “paid” job as an orphan in the musical “Annie, Jr.”. Watching her sing, act and dance, you’d never know what she’s been through. She also plays violin, piano and plays golf without the feeling in her fingers, hands and arms. People say she is amazing and we tell them about the truly AMAZING doctor who gave her a chance to do all these things. We pray for you and your family weekly. We love you, Dr. Epstein!!!
~ The Liu Family
I first met Dr. Epstein in 1983 when he diagnosed me with a spinal tumor (I was 15) He operated on me in NYU Medical Center. He made me feel comfortable and at ease at least somewhat at ease when you hear you need to have surgery. I did not need to have much contact with him for the operation was a success. Unfortunately, 20 years later, my symptoms returned. I was diagnosed again with a spinal tumor and wanted Dr. Epstein to do the surgery. I learned that he had been in a terrible accident. His practice recommended Dr. Kothbauer who Dr. Epstein trained. I thought if Dr. Kothbauer learned from this wonderful man I had nothing to worry about! I met with Dr. K and lo and behold saw Dr. Epstein. He said that he remembered my case. He even promised to visit me in the hospital. I had surgery July 1, 2003 and a few days later he DID visit me. He impressed me. It was terrific that he went out of his way to see a former patient. This man had a wonderful gift for healing and I feel extremely lucky to have had him in my life.
~ Marjorie (Cohen) Linefsky
I have never been to a doctor like you in my all my life! At my office visit, you took so much time with me and my husband (Mike) and explained everything to us and were so positive, also acted like you had all day to talk to me if I needed to. Other doctor’s that I have been to, get you in and out as fast as they can. But you made me feel like I was the only patient that you had and acted like you had known me forever! Thank goodness, I do have a local neurologist (Dr. Robert Cochran) that reminds me of you in that way. Also, I will never forget how you treated my daughter (Mika) when I had my surgery (November of 1999), even though she was only 11, you included her also by showing so much kindness and time! I am so lucky that I found you and got you to do my surgery. You are a wonderful person and I think of you often.
~ Stacy Gray
I live in Rochester NY and was referred to Dr. Epstein in May 2001, when a MRI showed a spinal cord tumor at T2 – T9. The doctors in Rochester were actually very quick to diagnose the tumor (about 4 months after onset of severe symptoms), but they were also very quick to say that no one in Rochester was qualified to treat me. It was good to know there was a physiological cause for my symptoms, but I was still very unsure of the long-term prognosis, or even what to expect in the short term. That was until the local doctors told me to send my MRI results to Dr. Epstein. He received my slides and called the same day and assured me in a calm, kind, and optimistic manner that my tumor was operable and that he felt he was the guy to remove it. He answered the questions I had at that point and then did something very unexpected. He told me I would come up with other questions and concerns and that I should not belabor these questions. Just call him, anytime! He gave me his home phone number, which I later learned was common for him to do. He was sincere; he wanted to answer the questions. I have often wondered if he understood the peace this one gesture brought to someone facing great uncertainty. I was able to focus on preparing for the trip to NYC and the surgery, rather than guessing what the future held for my family and me. Dr. Epstein’s innovations in the field of SCTs and his skill in the operating room are legend, but his ability to relate to his patients and understand the psychosocial implications of a major illness is unmatched. All SCT patients, family, and doctors are in a better place because Fred Epstein is among us.
~ Mary Pat Walton
From Steven J. Schneider, MD, FACS, FAAP:
I remember the summer of 1988, the excitement I felt getting ready to begin my Pediatric Neurosurgical Fellowship with the renowned Dr. Epstein. It was one of the first fellowships in a new field and I was its fourth fellow. I reported for work that morning in July and waited for him in his office at NYU in the Rusk Institute. I gazed out into the East River and was mesmerized by the combination of passing boats, cars and helicopters. Suddenly the door burst open and in scurried Dr. Epstein. He immediately began complaining about how the FDR Drive and his Ferrari were completely incompatible. I introduced myself and thanked him for selecting me. He replied,” no need for that, we’re not much on formality here so call me Fred and I’ll call you Steve, let’s get to work.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a giant bunch of white grapes and said, “ I love these things, help yourself and by the way my office is your office and your welcome to borrow or use anything in it, you’re family now, oh yeah, want some tickets to the Yankee game, go you’ll like it, say hi to Tommy John for me.” Everyday was like that, never a dull moment. Patients came from all over the world, immediately I became an expert because I was training with the master. Even when things didn’t go so well, Fred would pat me on the back and say, “you did the best you could, didn’t ya?” From that moment on, I always made sure I did! Fred was the most gifted mentor I ever met, always supporting us like his children but allowing enough independence to build confidence. Whether we were visiting his home on Fire Island, speaking at national or international symposia or going out to dinner with visiting professors from around the world, he was always Fred, unpretentious, good-natured and painfully honest. Even after I left fellowship he remained the teacher, always guiding, supporting, and advising me. It was an honor and privilege to have trained under him and wish him the speediest of recoveries and the happiest of New Year’s.
From: Dr. George Jallo
Dr. Fred Epstein is more than just a mentor or another neurosurgeon who trained me but a father figure to me. One of my fond recollections of FRED was when I was a fellow on the pediatric neurosurgery service at Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery. I was just starting my fellowship training and I realized how talented of a surgeon he was, but moreover he has a truly sincerely physician. He had such a presence to all patients, families and nursing personnel alike. When we made rounds together all families wanted to meet him and speak with him about their son or daughter’s care. This included families with non-neurosurgical issues, such as hernias or asthma. He was the true surgeon willing to speak with his patients and other’s patients without hesitation or indignation. He always introduced himself as FRED, not Dr. Epstein, not the chief of pediatric neurosurgery. He had a simple approach to children, patient care and neurosurgery. It was quite simple, he instructed his families to call him Fred anytime or anywhere. He did not need to carry a pager; he gave his cell phone or home number to his patients and made himself readily available. He had this easy approach to families, be available and speak in understandable language. He would always comment that he could teach anyone to operate on spinal cord tumors, but it was just a few exceptional trainees that he could teach what the true meaning of being a physician was, is and will be. On rounds we always had discussions about my training, my future career and goals. He would teach me the surgical nuances for all neurological disease processes, both in and outside the operating room. I believe I have learned how to operate on spinal cord tumors; however, I am still trying to emulate him in aspects, which cannot be measured by a resume. This is the simple approach he had for patients and their families.
From: Dr. Karl Kothbauer
Fred is known for many things but not for ever saying “no” or “impossible” to someone or about something. When I first applied for a fellowship-slot with Fred I wrote to him after I had first visited the group at NYU. He wrote back that there were many North American applicants for his program and for a European it would be rather hard to compete. “I don’t mean to say it cannot be done”, he went ahead, “I am only saying, it is not within easy reach.” That is as far as Fred ever got to say: not a chance!