Michael Stitelman, MD
The following tribute was prepared by Jane Stitelman, wife of Dr. Michael Stitelman.
Michael Stitelman’s career spanned fifty years – from the days when being a resident in psychiatry meant a long stint in psychoanalysis, to the current state of phone and FaceTime sessions.
He and I first saw each other in the CMHC lobby in 1969. He was treating drug addicts at the Herb Kleber Addiction Unit. I was a research assistant for Gerry Klerman – a job I defined for him as “an intelligent typist”. Thanks to the government’s Berry plan, which sent deferred medics into the military, Michael was sent to Korea in September 1970. On New Years Day in 1971, he called a two-way radio in Seoul and said, “ Can you be here at the end of the week? ”We got married on a 3 day pass at the US Embassy on March 5th.e. Returning to New Haven in 1973, he opened an office on Whitney Avenue, then moved to Branford. I returned to CMHC, eventually as editor in psychiatry. We were laid back enough to celebrate our 50e birthday last March.
During his years of practice, he considered himself a community psychiatrist. His office in Branford was bright and full of windows, with walls of books. Patients walked up three floors from a thrift store to an office overlooking the Branford River and two busy railroad tracks. It was such a welcoming and safe space that if Mr. Rogers went to a psychiatrist, he probably would. Last November, due to COVID, Michael moved his office to our home, where he continued to meet with patients regularly, albeit virtually.
But a fainting episode on September 20e led to an emergency room visit, which revealed a weaker heart than expected. Then he began a two-week stay in the coronary intensive care unit at Y-NHH. When asked by the head of the medical team about end-of-life choices, he replied that he wouldn’t want to live in a state where he couldn’t care for his patients. From his hospital bed, Michael called patients for a final check-in and organized the last refills he could give; then maneuver the syncopated computer and cell phone sessions required for the online prescribing system. Hospital staff had never seen a heart patient still working in intensive care.
As the hospice nurses came to our house, it was touching to hear them talk about friends he had helped; a nurse’s friend had said, “Dr. Stitelman had such warm eyes. The responses on answering machines and text messages to the reports of his death have been powerful and moving.
But to talk about him, let’s remember Science. At Harvard (’62) he majored in mathematics and minor in physical sciences. For his position as clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry, he offered an annual course, “Science – a reading group”. Few people signed up, but he persisted in giving it away.
Extract from the summary: “All the molecules of our biology are more and more known in the smallest details and some of them will be directly related to our practice. Examples include better drugs, better imaging, and better lab tests. But it’s quite a leap to move from molecules to people, to thought and to social engagement. I believe that if we are to use molecular knowledge, we would do well to root ourselves in the basics. Stories have endless complexity, but use general themes and methods that permeate and recur, so reading a selection of recent articles should improve our understanding of the spectrum of science and its use.
But his best and most successful course in science studies was with our three sons, David, Jonathan and Nicholas. As toddlers they would fall asleep comfortably on the sofa for science class – his reading for them of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Where Nature. He surprised 10-year-old David with $ 20 one afternoon when the child identified the chemical formula of alcohol. He recruited the boys as teenagers to help him run a Branford science table at the Branford Fair. During Michael’s days in the ICU, we were amused to see him asking hapless residents what they knew about the chemistry of the leech medicine they were giving him.
All the boys continue to feel comfortable studying and talking about science. David is a pediatric surgeon and researcher at the Yale School of Medicine; Jonathan teaches architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. Nicholas called regularly when he got home from working on a set, to talk about the electrical equipment used in making movies.
Michael’s interests went to a wide range of subjects. He loved talking to our stepdaughter, Caitlin Loomis, about his field of neurology. He started to read Architectural file to better understand the work of his daughter-in-law Allison Méndez, architect in Saint-Louis. He enjoyed tutoring future daughter-in-law Lili Arteaga through Zoom for her physics class in college. A few years ago, a rumor was circulating in Yale’s physics department that Michael’s attendance at their lectures, as well as his bulletin board postings seeking tutors on obscure physics topics, was part of a secret research project in psychiatry. And he still loved Fridays because it was a new day Journal of Biological Chemistry came out of.
And then there was the music! Although he had what you might call a pathological fear of music lessons, he owned and played a lot of musical instruments. When I first met him he was playing sitar and studying veena. A few years ago, he told CMHC administrator Bob Cole that the lawn at Bob’s new home in Hamden was “perfect for playing sitar.” Michael had an upright piano in his office and a grand piano at home. In our neighborhood, he is remembered for playing the mandolin on his trips back and forth to the lake. He had a dulcimer, a cello, a banjo and two violins. He had guitars everywhere. A few years ago Jonathan, Allison and I were concerned that he would be arrested by the Treasury Department for breach of trade sanctions, when Michael was attempting to buy a string instrument, a tar, from Iran. Throughout the Pandemic, he began to learn Chopin’s waltzes and mazurkas, at a very good pace. In recent years, in the middle of the night, he liked to play the oud, but certainly not in the traditional way.
Finally, we could say that being grandfather, aka Nappa, Heidi and Timothy put a new program on his hard drive. For them, he strummed an ukelale and walked in a parade around the house; accept that a child can benefit from piano lessons; and, although he suggested that He-Man was a fascist when David was a child, for Heidi & Timmy, Michael could put on a cape and mask, and dress up as a superhero.
To honor his passing, we suggest that people take a walk in the woods, read a scientific article, donate to their city’s land trust, and / or take a moment to appreciate the brilliant complexity of nature in all its detail. delightful. (If you would like to donate to the North Branford Land Trust on their behalf, the link is http://nblandtrust.org/ NBLCT Mailing Address, PO Box 378, North Branford, CT 06471.)