George H. Haddad: Unsung Excellence in Medicine

Ever wonder about the people who make our health care system work at a time when reports of greed, fraud, profiteering and harmful malpractice are rampant and remedies are not advanced?

I was recently reminded how hard these proficient and caring physicians, nurses and physician assistants are working day after day and how their commitment to patients and their profession receives so little recognition. The sad occasion for these reflections was the passing this month of Dr. George H. Haddad, an alert 101-year-old surgeon who had worked for many years in New York City’s public hospitals.

Growing up in Egypt, he graduated from the American University of Beirut Medical School and returned home to serve poor farmers in a small village in the Nile Delta. Later he would say that was one of the most fascinating experiences in his life.

He came to New York City in 1947, and began a life of singular commitment to patients.  He believed profit-seeking should be taken out of medical practice as much as possible. He certainly practiced what he preached as a staff physician who worked long hours for modest remuneration. Soon after his arrival in New York, fellow physicians and nurses noticed his drive toward perfection, his keeping up with developments in surgery, his quiet, reassuring bedside manner, his unfailing courtesy and mentoring of staff, and his readiness, as a bachelor, to take the place of other doctors wanting to spend holidays with their families.

He took the hard cases in emergency rooms where victims of crimes flowed into highly pressurized situations. One year he conducted more surgeries than any other physician in New York City. During these procedures, he noticed that many surgeons could not easily differentiate between the wounds that penetrated into the abdominal cavity from those that did not. As a result, the customary procedure was to operate into the abdominal cavity, which was often excessively invasive. Drawing on the medical literature and his experience, he was instrumental in introducing surgical techniques to save patients from unnecessary operations, an improvement that, since the late sixties, has spread all over the world.

Dr. Haddad also knew a great deal about the waste, redundancy and gouging in the health care economy. He favored a reorganization of medical care where primary care would be very local and the more technologically-intensive care would be in regional centers. He saw the increasing corporatization of his beloved profession as interfering with professional judgments, leading to profitable over-diagnosis,over-treatment, and higher prices resulting in patients, without universal health insurance, not being able to afford to pay for basic health care.

Inasmuch as he was my second cousin, I would often call and ask him for specialists to help friends and associates. He had an uncanny sense of who the best physicians in many field were, not just in their skills, but also for their character and personality.

He viewed the profession of medicine as one where self-renewal was critical, where prevention was the first duty and availability for treatment was to be maximized. He was always willing to be on call and ready for any emergency.

I would frequently query him whether any public official would ask for his advice on improving the healthcare industry, about which he knew so much, or whether anybody in the media ever wanted to interview him in place of the usual bloviators or hucksters. He would smile and shake his head no.

As far as disputes over medical behavior, he wished for lawyers not to be just adversarial but also technically informed. In that pursuit, he wrote a meticulous chapter in the encyclopedia, Proof of Facts, on foreign items left inside patients during operations and ways to avoid such damaging malpractice.

George Haddad’s self-effacing, honest, generous lifetime work for sick and injured people evokes the observation by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. The sage wrote that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Would that there be more public recognition of such regular, consistent and faithful excellence, if only to provide an exemplary legacy for future generations.


Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!