Dr. Jack prepares to deep-six his beeper
MIDDLEBURY — It’s not unusual for children to announce what they’d like to be when they grow up, such as a fireman, pro athlete or even astronaut.
Jack Mayer decided in 7th grade that he was not only going to be a physician, he was going to be a pediatrician.
“I always felt a calling to work with kids,” Mayer said.
And Mayer dutifully met his calling, serving thousands of children during a career that has spanned four decades.
Now poised to celebrate his 67th birthday, Mayer has decided to ease out of a profession that has given him tremendous satisfaction and earned him many accolades as a top-notch physician and tireless advocate for children.
“I’m calling it semi-retirement,” Mayer said of his plans that call for him to scale back his workload beginning Jan. 1 to the equivalent of one day per week at Rainbow Pediatrics in Middlebury. He will not take on any new patients.
“Being on call is really hard work,” Mayer said of the least enjoyable of his responsibilities as a physician. “I have had a beeper on my hip for 40 years and I am really looking forward to handing that puppy off to someone else.”
Mayer grew up in New York City, first in Washington Heights and then the Bronx. German was his first language, and he only began speaking English at age 5. His mother was a nurse and his father worked as a salesman, offering millinery goods to dressmakers and hat makers in the garment district of New York City.
Mayer would attend the Bronx School of Science and then Harpur College (now known as SUNY Binghamton). He was only 19 years old when admitted to the New York University School of Medicine in 1967, the youngest to be admitted. He had earned enough high school credits to get into college, but not enough to secure his high school diploma.
“I was accepted for early admission to college and the NYU School of Medicine, hence I have neither a high school diploma nor college degree,” Mayer said with a smile during a recent interview.
As it turned out, Mayer would be quickly called upon to put his budding medical knowledge to use on the biggest musical stage in the history of pop culture.
It was August of 1969, and Mayer and his college roommate decided to attend the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York. They drove up in a purple, 1937 Chevrolet and parked about a mile away from the festival grounds, which at this point were swelling beyond anyone’s expectations. The three-day event drew more than 400,000 people who came to listen to some of the most iconic rock ’n’ roll bands of the era, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Santana, Ritchie Havens and Joe Cocker.
“At the gate, the fence was already partially down and we just walked in,” Mayer recalled. “No one asked for tickets or took mine — I wish I’d kept the ticket.”
Soon the rains swept in and it became clear that Woodstock “had the potential for a public health disaster,” Mayer said. “The call went out for anyone with medical training to volunteer their services.”
Abbie Hoffman, Wavy Gravy and other Woodstock/counter-culture personalities drafted Mayer to deliver health care services to spectators, many of whom had a common, self-inflicted ailment.
“I was assigned as a caregiver at the ‘bad trip tent,’” Mayer said, recalling the makeshift venue for people who were having bad experiences with the drug LSD.
“Our instruction was to sit with the distressed person, and, as Abbie said, ‘Go out with the brother or sister. Be on their trip, man. Then slowly, lovingly, bring them back with you,’” Mayer said. “There was almost no need for (the anti-anxiety drug) Thorazine at Woodstock.”
Those who have seen the movie “Woodstock” will recall an announcement from the stage for a “Dr. Major (sic)” to come up and deliver a baby. Mayer said that with the commotion, he never heard the announcement and it might have been for the better.
“I had delivered babies as a medical student, but I was glad not to have heard the announcement,” Mayer said. “The thought of delivering a baby under the stage at Woodstock is a little more than daunting.”
But Mayer saw his share of medical crises at the festival. He was among those who tried (in vain) to resuscitate one of two people who died during Woodstock. The man had fallen asleep near the road and was crushed by a septic truck that had come through to service the porta-potties.
Mayer hitched a ride home after the three-day extravaganza, during which he had little time to appreciate the music.
“Woodstock was the beginning of my medical career — filled with the possibility of dread, Age of Aquarius to capricious death,” he said.
Indeed, Mayer has deservingly received more than his allotted 15 minutes of fame.
SUPREME COURT CASE
The physician-in-training was arrested in Chicago while tending to an injured demonstrator during an anti-Vietnam War protest in 1969. He was charged with interfering with an arresting officer and disorderly conduct. His 1970 trial occurred as the Chicago Seven trial concluded, and he was found guilty. Mayer sought to appeal his conviction, only to find that his court costs as an indigent medical student would not be covered. At that time, states had only to pay court costs for indigents convicted of felonies. But Mayer’s lawyer (working pro bono) brought the issue to the United State Supreme Court, which ruled in 1971 that all states had to pay for appeals of indigents convicted of misdemeanors as well as felonies.
Mayer spent his pediatric residency at the Stanford University Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., as well as at the University of Vermont, during the early 1970s. He had developed an affection for Vermont that compelled him to stay, beginning with his opening (in 1976) of the first pediatrician office in Enosburg Falls, which is in Franklin County.
“I grew up in the city, I grew up in the projects in the Bronx, and I hated the city,” Mayer said. “I felt like Heidi — in the wrong place. I realized that I was a person who belonged in a rural setting.”
For the next 12 years, Mayer would dispense care to the children of families with limited means. Many clients didn’t have the means to pay their bills in a timely fashion, or even in cash. So Mayer bartered medical care for eggs, firewood, knitted afghans and other supplies when his clients lacked currency. This allowed families to maintain a sense of pride and for Mayer to receive some form of remuneration.
“I have always had a pretty strong commitment to social justice and issues of social equity,” Mayer said. “I wanted to practice in an area where it really made a difference.”
One of his first house calls was in Bakersfield, tending to a young girl having a serious asthma attack. It was too serious a case to treat on-site and there was no organized ambulance system, so Mayer placed the girl in the back of his Volkswagen for a trip to the hospital in St. Albans. But Mayer’s VW broke down along the way, and of course there were no cell phones at that time.
“I’m standing on Route 36 with my thumb out, hitchhiking for a ride, while this kid is sitting in the back (gasping for air),” Mayer recalled.
Fortunately, a local guy drove along in his pickup truck, and he agreed to take doctor and patient the rest of the way to the hospital, where the girl received the treatment she needed.
Mayer has written many short stories and poems of his experiences, a talent that culminated in the release in 2010 of his first book — “Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project.” It’s the World War II-era story of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who organized a rescue network of fellow social workers to save 2,500 Jewish children from certain death in the Warsaw ghetto.
Wedding bells would ring in 1978 for the nuptials of Jack and Chip Mayer. Dr. Jack met his wife in Boston and they exchanged vows on a pasture in East Bakersfield. Their son, Alex, came along in 1980.
Mayer confessed to having suffered some burnout after more than a decade of work in Enosburg Falls that saw him treat patients as well as send out their bills. So he and his family moved to the Middlebury area in 1986 so that Mayer could join the late Dr. Pete Peters’ pediatric office. That proved a one-year detour, however, as Mayer in 1987 accepted a job as a National Cancer Institute post-doctoral research fellow with the Columbia University School of Public Health. He researched, among other things, the molecular biology of childhood cancer.
“I decided to give academic pediatrics a try,” Mayer said.
But the desire for patient contact brought Mayer back to Middlebury in 1991, when he established Rainbow Pediatrics — first in the Marble Works complex, and now at Porter Medical Center. It was during that same year that he joined a successful effort to create the Open Door Clinic, a local office that provides medical care to the uninsured and under-insured.
Rainbow Pediatrics began with only Mayer and nurse Kathy Hoxsie.
“It was a crude operation,” Mayer recalled. “There was a single exam room, but it worked.”
And it grew. Rainbow now consists of 16 employees, including three physicians and three nurse practitioners. Mayer has seen thousands of young patients. He has a picture of the first young patient he treated at the Enosburg Falls office in 1976. That young child — Benjamin Putnam — now lives in Addison County, and Mayer is now treating his kids.
“That’s a thrill,” Mayer said.
Benj’s parents, Fran and Spence Putnam, still remember their first meeting with Dr. Jack the day their son was born in 1976.
“He asked me, ‘Are you Ms. Putnam?” Fran recalled of the progressive (for the era) manner in which he introduced himself.
“I thought, ‘This is going to be a good doctor,” she said.
It didn’t take long for the Putnams to test the limits of Mayer’s on-call status. One night, the young couple heard a noise that sounded like a barking seal coming from their infant son’s bedroom. Benj was coughing. Loudly.
They called for Mayer, and the weary doc picked up the phone, listened to the symptoms, and confidently told the Putnams their son had the croup. He advised them to bundle Benj up in a blanket and take him outside on what was a very cold night. The coughing magically ceased and Mayer confirmed his diagnosis the next morning.
“I was very impressed that he was so lucid so late at night and was able to give diagnosis and treatment,” Fran said.
Mayer’s memory will remain filled with a lot of success stories, some tragedies and some humorous episodes. Mayer still has the photo of one of his young patients (perhaps six years old), sitting on an examination table sporting some Groucho Marx glasses, a fake mustache and a phony cigar in his mouth.
“What he said to me was, ‘I don’t believe in miracles; I depend on them,’” Mayer recalled with a hearty laugh.
He remains amazed at the healing capabilities inherent in youth. But that of course makes it all the more sorrowful when a child can’t beat an illness.
“You remember those tragic stories and they are burdensome,” Mayer said. “It does make one appreciate the fragility of life and the miracle that so many kids make it through so many hard times.”
One of the more gratifying aspects of the job is that Mayer has been able to get to know a lot of local families and in essence “grow up” with the many children he has treated.
“You are a party to their stories,” Mayer said. “There’s a real generosity of them sharing their personal histories — often painful personal histories and stories. It’s really a privilege to be in that relationship with families. I think that has also fueled my writing avocation.”
It has also inspired him to become vocal on health issues outside of his office.
From 1983 to 1987, he participated in the “Peace Bell Treaty,” an anti-nuclear Mother’s Day bell ringing throughout the world for nuclear disarmament. He is a former member of the Vermont Department of Health’s Advisory Committee on Low Level Nuclear Waste and a New England delegate to Physicians for Social Responsibility. He was an active member of the People for Less Pollution group that almost a decade ago protested International Paper Co.’s proposal to burn tire-derived fuel to power its Ticonderoga, N.Y., mill. And Mayer has been an advocate for a single-payer health care system, and he punctuated that point at a Middlebury town meeting several years ago during which he unfurled a very long spreadsheet enumerating the more than 200 insurance companies with which he routinely deals.
Mayer is disappointed the state has suspended efforts to transition to a single-payer system.
“It’s a social justice and equity issue, in my opinion,” Mayer said. “A lot of people don’t get the health care they need because they are looking in their wallets first.”
While he will be ratcheting down his physician activities, Mayer won’t become idle. He will soon join his wife volunteering at Wellspring, a hospice group that sings to terminally ill patients. He loves to hike, enjoys music and will of course continue to write. He will take his cue from the final entry of one of his favorite comic strips, “Calvin & Hobbes,” which appropriately featured the adventures of a young boy and stuffed tiger.
“They are on top of a hill, (Calvin) has a toboggan, they are getting ready to go down a snowy hill and there is a white canvas in front of them, and he looks at Hobbes and says, ‘It’s a magical world out there, Hobbes ol’ buddy, let’s go exploring…’”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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