Between taking her kids to gymnastics and riding her bike from her Somerville home to the CHA Everett (formerly the Whidden), Dr. Erika Fellinger somehow finds time to perform just about any kind of surgery that might walk through the doors of the Everett community hospital.
He dedication and listening skills, many say, are notable, and it is one of many reasons she was recently named a Boston ‘Top Doc’ in the latest issue of Boston Magazine. Once a year, the magazine highlights several doctors and specialists who have gone above and beyond in the medical profession. This year, Fellinger was recognized.
“It was a surprise, and it’s an honor,” she said. “I think it speaks a lot for CHA. I love my colleagues. We have a mission driven group of physicians and I consider myself one of them. I love my patients and listening to their stories and knowing their families and the staff here. I think if that’s what gets you ‘Top Doc’, then there needs to be more of it. That’s really what we need more of in medicine. We need people who enjoy the stories and the people. I’ve been on the other end as a patient and I know how it feels. Even if I can’t fix them, the listening I can do is critical.”
Fellinger didn’t come by way of Harvard or Boston University, like many top doctors in the area, but rather by way of the mountains and valleys of practicing community medicine in Vermont – with a few years training in Africa as a member of the Peace Corps as well.
She said the key for her has been to focus on the patients of Everett, Chelsea and Revere and really get to know them. As a general surgeon mostly conducting minimally invasive surgery, she can be doing everything from removing a gall bladder to repairing a knee to treating a gunshot wound that cannot wait.
In the midst of those procedures, she said she has always made an effort to visit with the patients – learning about them whether they are five generations in Everett or they have just arrived from any number of countries around the world.
“General surgery isn’t usually warm and fuzzy, but I feel fortunate the training I had in Vermont featured role models that listened to patients and their stories,” she said. “It helped to find out what was wrong with them. Coming down here, I realize now that was a really unique experience and I am fortunate.”
Fellinger, 50, was born in Washington, D.C., but said her “hippie” mom retreated to Maine when she was 11. As the oldest of five children, she said there wasn’t a lot of money, but there was always a lot of work to be done. She got a big break in landing a scholarship to Smith College. After college, though, this non-traditional surgeon took another non-traditional route on her way to the operating room.
“After college, I thought I wanted to go to medical school, but wanted to get experience so I joined the Peace Corps,” she said. “I ended up in Africa for four years. It was life changing. I still have friends there, and with cell phones, it’s much easier to talk to them now.”
She returned to the United States and enrolled in the University of Vermont Medical School (which is Maine’s in-state medical school). She married a Vermonter, and was a resident for 10 years up there, later completing a fellowship in minimally invasive surgery at Bay State Medical Center in western Massachusetts.
Some 14 years ago, she got an offer to come to the “big city,” being offered a position at the former Whidden and at Cambridge Hospital. Going back and forth between the two facilities, however, was challenging. Soon, she was able to decide between the two, and she chose Everett.
“I had a choice between Cambridge and Whidden and I chose Whidden,” she said. “I loved it. It’s a great operating staff. Everybody really cares and bends over backwards to help out. I also love the patients. My practice has grown. I see many of my patients out in Everett when I go to eat, and I’ve even seen patients while taking a steam at Dillon’s Russian Steam Bath in Chelsea.”
The hospital has changed, she said, but only for the better – as she noted everyone is now board certified and it’s much more academic. She said she often describes herself to patients as a “butts and guts surgeon” due to the fact that general surgery can entail both parts of the anatomy.
More than anything, she said she enjoys being a compassionate physician who could face just about any kind of care.
“It’s a community hospital,” she said. “I love being able to take care of anything that comes through the door.”
Fellinger is married, and has three children between the ages of 13 and 8. They make their home in Somerville.