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Fred Kauffman, M.D.

HEROES > Fred Kauffman, M.D.

BAMS Hero,

December 2006

Yogi Berra, the Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees, once gave directions to a friend by saying, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Despite the seeming contradiction, in reality the directions made perfect sense and contained a great deal of wisdom. Either path led the traveler to the same desired destination.

Ten years ago, I approached a similar fork in the road in my life. As chairman of a busy inner-city emergency department in North Philadelphia, my professional life was fueled by adrenaline rushes and administrative challenges. Patients with heart attacks, gunshot wounds, broken bones, and drug overdoses were a part of my everyday life. So, too, were seemingly endless meetings and frustrations with trying to provide patient care to the underserved along with student and resident education all within a financially viable framework, which was increasingly difficult in the world of modern healthcare. My life was filled with pressure from all sides, and all too often that pressure spilled over into my home life as husband and father of four beautiful children, ages thirteen to one.

One night I could not sleep. I went downstairs to the living room couch and dozed off, only to be awakened by the sudden onset of pain and numbness in my right leg. It lasted a minute or two, and then left as suddenly as it had arrived. Over the next two weeks, these attacks occurred nightly, each time worsening to involve not only my leg, but also my torso, right arm and hand. During these attacks the right side of my body was totally useless, but suddenly returned to normal after a minute or two. Three weeks after the first attack my life, was forever changed by the words "multiple sclerosis."

Treatment began immediately, followed shortly thereafter by severe clinical depression and a five-month medical leave of absence from work. Despite attempts to return to clinical and administrative work over the next two years, I was unable to do so and forced to resign my position. At the age of 43, I was lost and felt like I had nowhere to go.

With a great deal of help from my wife, Wendy, I came to understand that what I missed most was not so much my job, but rather the notion of service to the underserved, especially those residing in North Philadelphia. My new path led me to Dawn Staley. Dawn is a three-time Olympic gold medalist in basketball, a WNBA legend, and head coach of Temple University's women's basketball team. More importantly, however, Dawn is president and founder of the Dawn Staley Foundation (DSF). DSF provides at-risk youth from North Philadelphia the opportunity to dream their own dreams and to become productive members of society. The foundation accomplishes this mission through an after school program for middle school aged girls, providing academic tutoring, reading assistance, computer education, health and fitness training, and community service projects. Nearly ninety percent of participants improve their grades in school, and all of the girls learn the meaning of 'giving back' by annually serving a Thanksgiving meal to 150 women and children at a local homeless shelter. My role in DSF is simple; I am co-chair of its board of directors and a passionate supporter of its mission.

Ten years after approaching that fork in the road in my life, I now understand that multiple sclerosis has provided me with an opportunity to take a different path in my life, but one with no less meaning and fulfillment than that of an emergency physician. I have made new friends and have been inspired by countless youngsters who face life challenges that are hard for me even to imagine, all the while reaching the same destination of helping people in need in North Philadelphia. I have even walked my daughter, Elizabeth, down the aisle at her wedding. In order to move forward in our lives with multiple sclerosis, whether we have the disease, live with or care for someone with it, or know someone affected by it, we must face the fork in the road with resilience and character.

Taking the path least expected may not have been our original choice, and it undoubtedly will be filled with difficult challenges and obstacles, but it also provides the opportunity to live our lives with resilience, courage, and character. We all have the ability to reach our destination; we simply must be willing to "come to the fork in the road, and take it."