Dr. Michael P. Hirsh’s clinical titles at UMass Memorial Medical Center include Chief of the Division of Pediatric Surgery, Director of Trauma Services and Surgeon-In-Chief of the Children's Medical Center. In addition, Dr. Hirsh is the City of Worcester’s medical director and has helped to lead the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
You've mentioned your parents a number of times during the daily press briefings. They sound like truly courageous humans. How did their experiences as Holocaust survivors inform your upbringing?
It was an overarching legacy that they imbued me with. I think both my parents came out of the experience in the concentration camp slightly different. My mom was a little bit more cynical, a little bit more guarded. My dad just came out with this sense of joy that he had gotten through it. They were kind of like a yin and a yang. I was an only child and they showered me with lots of attention. I think it was my mom's training as a nurse while she was in concentration camp that stimulated my interest in medicine from a very young age. My dad was a wonderful writer, a terrific poet. Unfortunately, he couldn't pursue those things when he came to the States because he didn't have a dollar in his pocket. He took a position early on as a garment center freight forwarder and then as an ocean freight forwarder and finally as an air freight forwarder. His dreams went by the wayside. I'm sure my mom could have been a wonderful physician; she's the best diagnostician still until this day. She's turning 95 tomorrow. I think, as a first-generation Holocaust survivor, you get this feeling that you ought to recognize that you are here for a reason. You know? So many didn't make it. So, I'm sitting here as the kid of two that did and they struggled for so many years to get to the point where they could have a kid and be free and raise that kid without the fear of religious persecution. I felt like I had to make something of myself.
Where were you raised and how did you end up in Worcester?
It's an interesting story that both my parents were sent away from their parents on what's called a Kindertransport — a train system that was organized by some of the Jewish philanthropies in Europe to get Jewish children away from parents who thought that they were not going to be able to get out of Nazi-controlled territory. My father's family in Berlin and my mother's family in Vienna both sent their kids away. They had their choice of going to Switzerland, England or Holland, and unfortunately they chose Holland. The kids were stuck in a camp in Holland. And both of my grandparents, once they had jettisoned their kids, were able to get out to the United States. They both settled in different boroughs of New York, my father's family in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan and my mother's family in Brooklyn. When my parents were liberated from camp, they were just very good friends, but they weren't an item. My mother got to emigrate here first because after the camp was liberated, she got recruited into the Canadian army to be a nurse that would go around and help in all the other liberated concentration camps because she spoke Dutch, German and French. My mom came in '46. My dad came in '48. They didn't reunite until my mother read about my paternal grandfather's funeral. She showed up at the funeral and then they started to date. Then, they moved to a section of Manhattan called Inwood and that's where I grew up. I moved away to Boston to go to medical school.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Harvard Medical School and Columbia undergrad. I met my wife in my fourth year of medical school. She was a nurse at Beth Israel at the time. I went through that match process and ended up matching back at Columbia, which was my home hospital. It was a really wonderful experience because my wife, Julianne, had never lived in New York City. In my third year of residency, my best friend in the residency was a guy named John Wood, and he was murdered right in front of the hospital one night when he was running out to bring some ginger ale and crackers to his pregnant wife. I had to live through the aftershocks of that. I always had kind of a big mouth. I was president of the House Staff Committee at the time and tried to organize a response to try to push the Board of Trustees to build in more safety and security for our residents moving forward. I got through the rest of my time there. I finished training in '84. I said to myself, "I can never come back." I went from Columbia down to an even worse war zone, if that's possible, in the North side of Philadelphia at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children. That's where I did a two-year fellowship in transplant trauma and burn for pediatrics. When I was done, I was really craving a peaceful spot. I got an interview at UMass in Worcester and started here in '86.
I know you mentioned that you're also a cancer survivor. How did that experience help you to refine your own professional practice as a doctor? Is it informing the way that you're leading us through this crisis?
I first got diagnosed in 2007 and had what was billed as a very successful surgery. It was a cancer of the prostate. I was kind of young at the time, only 53. I don't really think it hit me. I was feeling so great after the surgery and I didn't need chemotherapy or any radiation at the time. I pretty much resumed totally normal activities within four weeks of the surgery. I don't think I let it affect me until it recurred in 2015. Then it recurred again in 2016. In 2015, I went through radiation therapy. In 2016, I went to chemotherapy and I'm still on maintenance therapy with an experimental protocol that Dana Farber has me on. You always hear doctors are the worst patients. I humbly say, I'm a very good patient. I will do whatever the doctor says. What I have noticed is that when you're a doctor, people don't spend as much time explaining things because they think that you must have read 15,000 journals about this and you don't really need the same level of basic info that a regular patient might. That's a mistake. I emphasize that a lot with the medical students. Your words matter. You need to really take advantage of your time in the room with the patient because everything now has evolved to staring at a screen and entering data while people are talking. And it's just rude and it doesn't give you the advantage of actually watching how your patients feel. They are going to reveal a lot to you. A kid that's bouncing around the room probably doesn't have peritonitis or appendicitis, which is a very common thing that we get asked to evaluate. As for the kid that's lying like a dishrag in the fetal position, that tells me there's probably something very bothersome going on. The most important part of the doctor's job is the relationships you can form while being in that room. Don’t forget the humanistic side of the healing process.