In a day and age when health care and its costs are of paramount concern and of extreme complexity, a small typewritten sign that caught the attention of Dr. Bob Singer when he came to Everett 34 years ago seems to endure in its simplicity – and its implied sense of compassion.
When Dr. Singer – who retired from the MGH Everett Family Medicine clinic on Jan. 4 after having practiced in Everett for 34 years – sat in the interview room at the former Dr. Michael Glenn’s office on Ferry Street in 1981, he immediately spotted the sign. It read, “No one will be turned away due to inability to pay. If you have a problem with the fee, please talk to the doctor.”
After taking the job and continuing throughout three decades of grateful service to the Everett people, that sign remained in Dr. Singer’s office and was a centerpiece of the philosophy of his life and his medical practice.
“I still have that sign,” he said last week in a telephone interview from his new home in Maryland. “When I was looking for a job in 1981, I had not planned on going into private practice, but I had to start looking for a job in private practice. Most of those I met with talked about how much money you could make or systems to pad the bill. I was really turned off by it. In Everett, I saw that sign and it stuck in my head. Dr. (Benjamin) Barton had put it up and Dr. Glenn agreed with it. You can make a good living taking money from 90 percent of your patients. If there are 10 percent who can’t pay you, that’s not really their fault. The 90 percent will subsidize the 10 percent and the 10 percent will someday be able to pay.”
To that compassionate point, Singer, 61, recalled one Everett man over the years who had just lost his job and had a family. The man had high blood pressure and needed to see the doctor, but didn’t have the money. His family needed care also, and Singer said he told the man he didn’t need to pay.
It was a decision he would make for scores of Everett people, and one that time and again did not pay off in getting taken advantage of, but rather in getting a great return in human decency.
“I told him I wasn’t going to charge him until he got another job,” he said. “I saw him, his wife and his kids for about a year with no pay. I was careful not to make him feel bad about it; telling him it wasn’t his fault and this is the way the system works. Then he did get a job and was able to start paying again. I felt good about having done that. Then, the next thing I knew, everyone he knew started coming to see me – all good paying customers with good jobs. Over the years, about 50 or 60 of his neighbors, family members and friends came to me as a result of that. By only doing a little bit of good, a lot came back to me.”
And so it has been that Dr. Singer has conducted his medical treatment in Everett, winning over hundreds of patients. In his time in Everett, he cared for patients in more than 100,000 office visits. There were thousands of hospital, nursing home, and even home visits. Singer started making the rare “home visit” in 1981 as a doctor and continued making such medical visits to patients throughout every year of his career – about 150 per year. Through it all, he said the most important message to relay to his patients is that of gratitude.
“I have always felt a welcome in this community for which I will be eternally grateful,” he said.
He grew up in New Jersey and came to Boston around 1972 to participate in the Six-Year Medical Honors program at Boston University. He completed that program in six years, specializing in Family Medicine (a rarity in those days) and did his residency from 1978 to 1981 in UMass Worcester Medical Center. Towards the end of his residency, Dr. Singer began looking in the Boston area and wanted to go where he was needed. He didn’t want to settle in an entitled affluent area, but rather in a place where people needed help.
It turns out that place was Everett.
Singer said he approached his work like it was a calling, rather than a profession or a way to make money.
“I always understood the customer service aspect, but I looked at being a doctor as a life of service,” he said. “It was very similar to me like if I had become some kind of minister or joined the Peace Corps. I was brought up by my folks to believe that taking care of people was the best life to live. I didn’t want to look for a job dealing with entitled people. Everett does have a variety of folks, but there are a lot of working people and people that are down to Earth. I always had a great affinity for the town. If you were nice to people, they would thank you for it. I always felt that every day nine out of 10 people made me feel good after I had helped them.”
Dr. Singer settled in with Dr. Glenn and Dr. Barton – who had been the City’s official physician during the Great Depression – on Ferry Street. Soon, they ran out of space and had to move down Ferry Street to the home office of former Dr. Abraham Marks, adding Dr. Barry Kaye to the staff.
“My office was the old living room,” he recalled. “I had an office desk, two soft swivel rockers for the patients, an exam table, and furniture for supplies. Our office had physicians and secretaries, no nurses or medical assistants.”
After a few more twists and turns in the practice – which was associated with the old Malden Hospital – Dr. Kaye left to become medical director in 1997 at a new startup health center – called the MGH Everett Family Healthcare. Soon, Dr. Singer left his practice to join Dr. Kaye.
He worked in that capacity until this past Jan. 4.
Upon moving to the MGH clinic, Singer said one thing he never gave up was his home visits. Many doctors in the northeast do not make home visits, but Singer said it’s a common thing for doctors in other parts of the country. He said it’s something he has enjoyed and something that has allowed him to know every street in Everett – and even every street sweeping schedule.
He even had his own theory of why such visits were effective in a place like Everett – a theory he dubbed the ‘Second Story Syndrome.’
He explained that many families in the area purchased triple deckers many years ago. The parents would live on the first floor and their adult children, with families, would live on the second floor. Soon, the grandchildren would inhabit the third floor.
“You think about that now and you had old people living on the first floor and they’ve all died,” he said. “The children were on the second floor and they’re all in their 90s. You would think they would move downstairs, but they don’t. They’re second story people. They like where they live and don’t want to move down. You end up having 90 year olds with arthritis and emphysema who can’t do the stairs. They can’t leave and are trapped there. Those are the folks that I made home visits to.”
Singer said he and his wife, Anne Rayman, have two children, Adam and Rachel. His patients watched them grow up, get married, move away, and now his son Adam, with wife Helene, have two beautiful daughters, Elie and Maya in North Carolina. His daughter Rachel is now working as “Dr. Singer,” a psychologist in the Washington, D.C. area.
“Rachel and her husband David expect their first child next May, 2016,” he said. “It is because of this that my wife and I finally decided to move, and we are now relocated to Rockville, MD, just outside of Washington, D.C.”
Dr. Singer has taken a job with the Charles E. Smith Life Communities, and will be working for them in their outpatient office, the Hirsh Medical Center, and in their long-term care facility, the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington.
Singer said he did not plan on leaving Everett, but when family calls, one must answer. He said he will not forget his years in Everett, and can never thank the people of Everett enough for letting him treat them. He said he has enjoyed a life of service.
“It has famously been said, ‘Patients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,’” he said. “I was taught it doesn’t matter if you know that answer at any given moment, only that you will work to find the answer, or get help if you are stymied. I tried to leave my ego at home; I knew it was not about me. It was about a life of service, it was about a life of offering kindness, it was about a life of offering hope.”
Dr. Benjamin Barton – Everett’s Great Depression physician
With the retirement of Dr. Bob Singer, a long-standing practice with more than 80 years of service has come to an end – a practice that began with the late Dr. Benjamin Barton.
Barton began his practice in Everett in 1928, and served as town physician in Everett during the Depression. He was paid about $100 a year, and in exchange, he agreed to see anyone who could not pay privately to see a physician. Going rates were about $1 for an office visit, $2 if it was after hours, and a home visit in the middle of the night would fetch $5.
“He related a story that made him laugh about an elderly Everett matriarch with a large family who summoned him in the middle of the night,” recalled Singer. “They were very anxious about her condition and so had also called another General Practitioner to come. Both doctors arrived at the same time, and had ‘words’ and a shoving match trying to determine who would get to go inside and see her and collect the $5 fee. Dr. Barton prevailed as the ethic of her actually being his patient won out.”
Barton sold his practice to Dr. Michael Glenn in the late 1970s.
During his heyday, he had used a system of first come first served, and at times set up a deli style paper counter. People would pick a number and wait their turn. Often they would come an hour or two before their appointment and stay afterwards as the patients waiting socialized with each other.
“He was beloved by his patients, who described him, and still describe him, as learned, kind, compassionate, reassuring, and an excellent healer who they could rely on any time of the day or night,” said Singer.
He practiced for over 50 years in Everett.