Geriatrics: An Unintended Journey

I looked at the certificate that came as registered mail in early December 1981. I already knew that I had passed the first Geriatric Medicine Royal College examination, with the oral taking place in Winnipeg, which when compared to Toronto was bitterly cold. I recall thinking as the examiner asked me questions that he was asking me more of an internal medicine examination than a geriatric medicine oral, but I wasn’t going to quibble with him as the encounter seemed to be going well. By the end of the day I knew I had been successful but the contents of the envelope held a surprise. In the right-hand corner of the certificate was the number one. I had received the first Canadian certificate of specialization in Geriatric Medicine which I knew was not because I was the first successful candidate but because my name must have been the first in the series of those who passed. But that number one has held a symbolic place in my life and career from the day I received that elongated piece of paper with the Royal College coat of arms in its middle.

Certificate #1 of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

The journey started about 38 years earlier when I as a young boy moved from Dearborn Michigan to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn to live with my maternal grandmother. She was divorced and living alone a few blocks from the actual finely sanded Brighton Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. The apartment had only one large bedroom which I shared with her and my younger sister. My parents slept in the living room which was divided by a low-set bookcase into the sleeping area and guest area. In the guest area besides a sofa and a few large chairs was a Sohmer baby grand piano, which had been purchased by my grandmother for my mother during the depression years, being paid for by a weekly payment plan on which they never defaulted. Therefore this gorgeous piano was mine to learn on a few years later and now sits in the home of my eldest daughter who carries on the tradition of ownership.

“Tell me again about why you came to America and what was it like when you came.”  That was a recurrent question I asked my grandmother, affectionately called by the Yiddish “bubby”, especially when the lights were out in the room before we went to sleep. She would recount the stories from Eishyshok , the small shtetl in Lithuania where which was her home prior to her immigration to the United States. I heard about her village and her family and then the pogrom which left many people injured and killed which precipitated the decision by her family to go to America where they already had some distant relatives.

Eishyshok in its glory

I heard about the terrible ship voyage and how so many people died because of the awful primitive conditions. She told me about living in the immigrant Jewish neighborhood on the lower East Side of Manhattan and how she got into the garment industry as a seamstress, work that was very common amongst young female immigrants. I heard from her the tragedy of the Triangle Factory fire of 1911 in which 146 of the 500 employees, mostly recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants had died, many brutal deaths from the flames and smoke or from leaping from the upper floors of