Way back when, when my father celebrated his 90th birthday, family and friends gathered together for a reception in the basement of the church in Endwell, NY. When time came to cut the cake and sing Happy Birthday, someone asked my father if he wanted to say a few words. He did, and promptly offered a brief statement and a little story.
The statement was obviously in anticipation of the question everyone asks at moments like this: “What’s the secret to living to 90?”
His answer: “I eat oatmeal for breakfast almost every morning.”
As my father plunged into the little story that followed, I thought immediately of Dr. Gott, the author of the medical column that appears six days a week in the Times of Trenton and more than 300 other newspapers around the country. Oatmeal, I recalled, was one of the good foods on Dr. Gott’s prescribed list of common sense, practical things you can do to live a healthier life. I made a mental note: Do a column on Dr. Gott.
That was November, 2008. My father is now pushing 92, still kicking, still driving, and still eating his oatmeal. And now I am finally getting around to Dr. Gott.
Peter H. Gott has practiced medicine for more than 40 years and has written his column almost as long, but not much has been written about him. Googling Gott yields little in return. Realizing that he receives on the order of 2,500 letters a week, I figured he must have a way of handling mail. So I wrote Dr. Gott a letter with a few questions. A week or two later I got five-page response.
Gott, the son of a military man, moved annually as a child but ended up in Scarsdale, NY, after World War II. He graduated from Princeton in 1957 with a degree in psychology and earned his medical degree from Tulane. After several years as an intern and resident at various New York City hospitals, he “knew with certainty” that he did not want a big-city practice and settled in a small town in Connecticut.
“At one stage I was medical director of two prestigious prep schools, had a full-time practice, was director of health for the town, did examinations for our local fire department personnel, served as president of our county medical association, was chief of staff at our local hospital, a member of the Connecticut State Medical Society, on call every third night and every other weekend, and saw patients at three nearby skilled nursing facilities. My day started at 6:30 in the morning and theoretically ended at 5 in the evening except for the evening school clinics five nights a week. That was, of course, unless the phone rang at home (which it did constantly) because of sick boarding school students, hospital admissions, medical consultations prior to surgery, and slips on the winter ice. I can state emphatically the pleasure has been all mine — every hour of every day . . . While I sometimes felt like a hamster on a rapidly spinning wheel, I would do it all over again. Well, most of it, anyway.”
All the above soon was intertwined with the writing. “Early on, and in the midst of the chaos,” Gott writes, “I was infected with an incurable ailment — writing. I began by submitting columns on a variety of medical topics to my local weekly newspaper. From the beginning, I kept the messages simple, explaining what to do for swollen ankles, sprains, and strains. As the column progressed and being a person unafraid to poke fun at himself, I never hesitated to pick up on the arrogance and perceived superiority of physicians.
“Early on in my writing career several physicians from a neighboring state reported me to my county medical society, claiming I was behaving in an unprofessional manner. A calamity ensued but I stood by, voicing my First Amendment rights. The New York Times picked up the story, CBS did a piece on their Evening News. I appeared on ‘Oprah.’ The long and short of it is that the doctors didn’t pursue their initial uproar . . . and I continued to write.”
He sure has. Mention his name and people can recall a home remedy he has passed along, always with the caveat that he doesn’t endorse the remedy, but people tell him it does work and it can’t hurt to try. Vicks Vapo-Rub for crusty toe nails; castor oil to relieve arthritic joints, a bar of soap under the sheets to ward off leg cramps at night.
Some of his columns are categorized by subject in his 2004 book, “Live Longer, Live Better — Taking Care of Your Health After 50.” And his no-nonsense “No Flour, No Sugar” diet book was a bestseller. (You want pancakes? Try Gott’s recipe with oatmeal instead of flour.)
More than that, Dr. Gott is the doctor who — on paper, at least — takes the time to listen to your question, and then takes as long as he needs to respond and tell you why he responds as he does. And if he doesn’t know he’s honest enough to admit it. As he wrote to me: “I still contend that 60 percent of what I learned in medical school I never used, 30 percent was incorrect, and 10 percent was actually beneficial over the years.”
The writing reflects Gott’s small-town approach to medicine. “I worked in a simpler era,” he wrote to me, “that allowed me to take the time to get to know my patients and to prescribe what I felt would make the patient better faster. Pro bono was common. There was no treadmill process in my office.”
I wonder if his medical practice may also reflect the writing. Given that he already gets 2,500 questions a week, I’m reluctant to ask one more as my deadline approaches. But it’s easy to think that by addressing in writing a sensitive subject such as terminal illness, Gott sharpens his own insight and increases his ability to communicate with patients.
“Most well-rounded physicians eagerly assimilate new advances and therapies,” Gott writes in “Live Longer, Live Better.” “But they will be equally committed to broadening their horizons by reading novels, seeing plays . . . and participating in other non-medical activities that are intellectually stimulating.” And, he noted in his letter to me, “if knowledge is the bread of good health, humor must be the leavening in the loaf.”
That brings me back to my father’s 90th birthday. Being a senior citizen is not without its stressful moments, he related to the family and friends. There was the time he showed up early for the regular meeting of the Wednesday morning breakfast club (choosing the oatmeal over eggs and home fries) and sat down for a cup of coffee to await his fellow retirees. The waitress brought him one refill, then another. He began to feel guilty. “You’d better be careful giving me all this coffee. I don’t want you to run out before the rest of the group gets here.” She replied: “Dick, you really don’t have to worry about the Wednesday morning club. Today’s Tuesday.”