Monday, May 25, 2015


"In youth, we don't look backward and our vision of the future isn't clouded by past mistakes or disappointments. As we grow older, our vision of our future narrows.

An adult myopia takes hold - a near-sightedness that lets the day-to-day clutter of anxiety and aggravation obscure the big picture. It's hard to see past the mortgage bills, the politics at work, the tensions at home.

My most reliable remedy for this disorder is hanging around with kids, listening to their dreams for the future, and remembering my own."

- Dr. Fred Epstein, Pediatric Neurosurgeon
If I Get to Five: What Children Can Teach Us About Courage and Character


This story begins with a 7-year-old boy named Fred. As a second grader, Fred struggled with reading, primarily because he saw letters in ways that didn't make sense to his brain. He was a daydreamer, bored and restless with school and the struggles with learning that confronted him daily.

As a child, Fred's school days were filled with trials and tribulations related to adults around him, whose patience was short with his seeming lack of focus and interest in doing well in school. He was reprimanded, dismissed for his seemingly indifferent affect, and was frequently singled out and made an example of, in front of his classmates. In short, Fred was a misunderstood little boy, who struggled to find his way in a sea of swirling, swarming letters on a page.  Despite being from an educated family, his propensity not to apply himself would more than likely become his destiny.

Roughly sixty years later, at the time of his death in July, 2006, Dr. Fred Epstein left behind an impressive professional legacy. He was chief of pediatric neurosurgery at New York University Medical Center. He designed and built his own pediatric neurosurgery center at Beth Israel. And, in operating on thousands of people (many of whom were children), he gave families hope for brighter futures. The secret to his philosophy behind his success was maybe best captured in the words of his wife, Kathy, written in his obituary:

It all comes down to hand-holding.

Any educator, any teacher or school leader, would have an easy time seeing the point. But for me, there is an added, almost serendipitous layer or two to this story.

Fred was my neurosurgeon, and was someone who first taught me the importance of never taking our personal circumstances for granted. He first taught me this 40 years ago, when he saved my life. I was reminded of this important lesson two months ago. when I was once again reminded, it all comes down to hand-holding.

I have a confession to make: I was a sick kid. From the time I was one month old, I was in and out of the hospital, for numerous brain surgeries, which, at the time was more serious and dangerous than the procedures of today. If not for the precision of a skilled, methodical brain surgeon in 1974, life as I know it today would've been drastically different.

That neurosurgeon was none other than Fred Epstein.

Why exactly is this a "confession"? Because, for the next thirty years I vehemently denied myself of letting being a "sick kid" hold me back. For as much as my parents suffered, raising a "sick kid", I pushed back, to the point that the story became that of legend, leaving people to wonder how that could have ever been me.

Until late in February, when I had a relapse, and a subsequent emergency brain surgery. Excruciating headaches, failing vision, lethargy, and a persistent low heart rate should have given it away. But as a busy family man, school principal, and and someone new to being "over-the-hill", I attributed these symptoms to life as I knew it. In retrospect, this had been going on for more than a year, and I was in complete denial. I was stubbornly rejecting having any excuse to not fully engage in life and work. Little did I realize, that I was in full denial and had myself completely convinced there was "nothing wrong".

The neurosurgeon who performed my brain surgery and I are the same age. He happened to be on-call the night my wife, took me by the hand, and brought me in to the emergency room. And he happens to be a pediatric neurosurgeon, by trade. In one of our first conversations, he explained that when he was leaning towards working at the University to teach aspiring doctors, one of the doctors with whom he took courses inspired him to pursue a career in pediatrics. The doctor went on to become one of his mentors. His name? Dr. Fred Epstein.

I have put off writing this post, so much so, that I am closing in on my second consecutive month of not blogging. But as of late, I am noticing signs, reminders that "it all comes down to hand-holding" and that this will surface in ways we are willing to accept.

My own wife and children, in their own way, reach out their hands to me, for daily reassurance (little do they realize, mine as much as theirs).

My friends and family reach out to pick me up, or to be picked up.

And my school family, my brothers and sisters in learning and I remind one another, that hand-holding looks different, with each hand we take. Some hands will reach out and hold on tight, while others will do so, casually and unassumingly. Some will wait to be approached, while others will show they want hands held in some of the most frustrating ways imaginable. Children will need their hands held, and so will adults.

Regardless, we must remain acutely aware that we may at times be presented with a golden opportunity. Holding a hand can change a life. And it just might be ours.