A Fitting Tribute to a Special Kind of Doctor

May 17, 2017

Gillda Leitenberg and Marcel ReuxGillda Leitenberg and Marcel Reux. Photo by Erin Howe

When beloved family physician and UofTMed alumnus Dr. Samuel Leitenberg (MD '74, PGME '76) died in 2015, his patients, colleagues and family were devastated. The world had lost an exceptional doctor, so they decided to help train others to become like him by setting up an endowed scholarship at U of T for residents in family and community medicine. It was a fitting tribute to Dr. Leitenberg’s career and legacy, and a strong endorsement for the value of the patient-centered family physician within today’s health care system. Faculty of Medicine writer Carolyn Morris recently sat down with Dr. Leitenberg’s widow, Gillda Leitenberg, and his former colleague, U of T Physical Therapy alumnus and chiropractor Marcel Reux, to hear more about the award, the doctor and the outpouring of support from former patients.

It sounds like Dr. Leitenberg was a very special doctor – what set him apart?

Dr. Samuel LeitenbergGillda Leitenberg: Sam was loving and caring and took time with each patient — to listen, examine and really get to know each one. He read voraciously, kept up to date on everything and consulted with specialists whenever he didn’t understand something. And specialists loved him because he would do thorough write-ups whenever he referred anyone. He would spend 45 minutes on a physical exam, do house calls, and he even mailed personal notes to patients to follow up on lab results — so many of his patients still talk about those notes. He was a rare amalgam of cutting-edge knowledge and old-fashioned practice.

Marcel Reux: Sam would often refer patients to me — but only when he knew I could help. He epitomized the thorough diagnostician — never ordering tests unless he already had a good idea of what he was looking for. Not everyone is so careful with tests, so we see a lot of false positives —  an X-ray showing normal wear and tear, but not accompanied by pain. That happens when doctors rely on tests but don’t actually touch the patient, or get them to move and show when they feel pain. Sam had the “doctor’s touch” that physician and writer Abraham Verghese described in a popular TED Talk a few years ago. He was also very careful with prescribing medication and kept track of any drug interactions. He really took his role as the patient’s primary physician seriously — like the captain of a ship.

Gillda: He was holistic and patient-centered — before these became buzzwords!

How did you decide to create the scholarship, the “Dr. Samuel Leitenberg Award for the Humanitarian Practice of Family and Community Medicine”?

Marcel: When we lost Sam, it felt so senseless — like they had gotten the wrong guy. He was the kind of doctor the health care system needs more of. After Sam gave so much to his patients throughout his career, he wasn’t even able to retire and spend more time with his wife. This scholarship was a way to honour him and his legacy — and hopefully to produce other Dr. Leitenbergs!

Gillda: When Marcel came to me with the idea to start a scholarship in Sam’s name, it just made sense. I had been approached by patients wanting to honour him in some way, but nothing seemed right. Before he passed away, Sam would find out about this type of thing and he’d squelch it. He had a huge intellect and a huge heart, but he had a really tiny ego. But U of T was his alma mater, and he was proud of that. And this was a chance to have Sam’s legacy live on, and to stress the importance of the family physician at the heart of patient care. Because he really did stand for something special.

What response did you get when you told people about the award?

Gillda: I reached out to the patients I knew and talked to regularly, and they were so happy we were doing this and wanted to contribute. We’ve gotten over $80,000 in donations to the fund, mostly from his patients. And I haven’t even reached out to everyone I know, because each time I do I hear stories about Sam, and I can only handle a few calls at a time. One patient told me that Sam “listened to my heart with his heart,” which I thought was beautiful. And of course I hear the running joke that you could bring a novel to the waiting room, and maybe even get to finish it! But that was never a complaint, because his patients knew that they would get his full attention when he saw them.

Marcel: Many of my patients had also been his patients, so I sent out a note to them and they responded enthusiastically and wanted to donate. I wasn’t surprised by the overwhelming support because I hear over and over how much people loved Sam, and how important it is to have family physicians like him.

Every year, the Dr. Samuel Leitenberg Award for the Humanitarian Practice of Family and Community Medicine supports a medical resident who exemplifies humanitarian qualities. Click here to contribute to this fund online. For more information about this award or about how to set up a tribute gift at the Faculty of Medicine, contact Afshaan Kohari at afshaan.kohari@utoronto.ca or 416-978-5628.

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