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King of Hearts

posted Friday July 27th, 2012

Many years ago, my colleague Paul Rubin profiled a local pediatric cardiac surgeon for our paper, Phoenix New Times. The headline was “Prince of Hearts.”

But to me, it’s Paul who’s the prince of hearts. Maybe even the king.

You should read his article about Michael Teodori. It’s a wonderful piece of journalism, well written and the result of months (literally) of reporting. It is not a story, pardon the pun, for the faint of heart. I am, and although it’s been almost a decade since the piece was published, I can still remember standing in the doorway of Paul’s office, wincing as he tried to tell me what it was like to watch the doctor literally hold a baby’s heart in his hand.

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” I said, covering my ears and waving my hands to make it stop. I just couldn’t go there. I had a one-year-old and (although I didn’t know it yet) another baby on the way, and I simply couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have a child with a serious medical problem, let alone one requiring open heart surgery.

Less than a year later — days after Sophie was born — I called Paul.

“Hey, you know that heart surgeon you profiled?” I asked. “I need his number.”

Paul didn’t just give me the doctor’s number. He called him personally. He assured me this particular procedure was the simplest these surgeons performed, talked me through the whole thing — several times, although I never did understand just what they did to Sophie’s heart. (Defense mechanism.) Four months later, on the day of the operation, Paul left work to come to the hospital and visit the nurses he’d gotten to know in the pediatric ICU, making sure they’d give Sophie extra-special care. He sat with us in the waiting room, and when Ray and I were able to see Sophie, he stayed behind and waited with my parents. At one point I looked up, and my dad was standing by Sophie’s bed. I was shocked; my father’s not the type to hang out near  medical tubing and bloody incisions. Paul had convinced him to come in and see her.

Nobody convinces my dad to do anything. But nobody had told Paul that.

By the time Sophie needed her second heart operation, at age 4, she and Paul were great friends. Post-surgery, she was understandably cranky, and pushed most visitors away. Not Paul. For months he told the story about how Sophie reached up from her hospital bed, grabbed his finger, and refused to let go.

Lots of people pass the Sophie Test, but few with the flying colors of this guy. When she sees him she goes nuts, and has announced on more than one occasion that she intends to marry him. (Awkward for his current wife.)

Don’t get me wrong. Paul is no saint. In the nearly 20 years we worked together, I wanted him dead on more than one occasion. He can be stubborn, and tact is not always his strong suit. I’ll never forget where I was standing the day he told me a cover story I’d just written was the worst thing he’d ever read in our paper. (An insult I’m still not quite ready to admit as true.)

But I also remember every rare, hard-earned compliment — including last week’s, when he told me how much he likes reading my blog. (It should be noted that when I started this blog, Paul cringed and made faces at the mere idea.) In the last 20 years, the guy has defended me against bullies and bitches; taught me a lot of what I know about journalism; introduced me to trusted sources; and brought me back documents from the courthouse on the hottest summer days. (And if you’ve ever been to Phoenix in July, you know that’s a big deal.)

We joked often that in all our years in the same office, we’d rarely been to lunch together; we were both too busy. But when I needed him, he was there. And he was there for Sophie.

This week, Paul cleared out his office. Even though I’m on the other side of the building, and never could hear his phone conversations or his jazz music, somehow the place feels quieter now. I walked by his mailbox and noticed there’s still a box of Thin Mints in it, a purchase he made from my girls back in January. He doesn’t eat that kind of thing — the biggest treat I’ve seen him allow himself is one Hershey’s kiss from my candy jar, almost every afternoon — but he bought a box of Girl Scout cookies every year when the girls walked around the office with their order forms.

I’d always tell him not to, offering to erase the order after Sophie had sweet talked him — she’d never know the difference. But he’d always insist, saying he wanted to do it for the girls.

He’s that kind of guy.

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Tags: Filed under: Down syndrome, family, health by Amysilverman

4 Responses to “King of Hearts”

  1. You have exceptional friends.

  2. Please give him my regards for an awesome retirement. It was so heartwarming to hear of his goodness. I knew the fun ballplaying side from umpteen years ago. But none of what you wrote surprised me.

  3. Fine piece, Amy. Paul is an amazing guy on so many levels–, journalistic, musical, athletic, and above all, human. He produced remarkable reporting year after year. At the NT, cutting him is an act of self-mutilation.

  4. I always knew he was a marshmallow covered in steel.

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My Heart Can't Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome is available from Amazon and 
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