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In Memoriam: Michael Stitelman, MD

October 20, 2021

The following tribute was prepared by Jane Stitelman, Dr. Michael Stitelman's wife.

Michael Stitelman’s career spanned fifty years – from the days when being a Psychiatry resident meant a lengthy stint in psychoanalysis, to the current state of phone and FaceTime sessions.

He and I first saw each other in the lobby of CMHC in 1969. He was treating addicts at Herb Kleber’s Drug Dependence Unit. I was a Research Assistant for Gerry Klerman – a job I defined for him as being “an intelligent typist.” Thanks to the Government’s Berry Plan, which sent deferred doctors into the Army, Michael was sent to Korea in September of 1970. On New Year’s Day of 1971, he called on a two-way radio from Seoul and said, “Can you be here by the end of the week?” We were married on a 3-day pass at the U.S. Embassy on March 5th. Returning to New Haven in 1973, he opened an office on Whitney Avenue, and later moved to Branford. I came back to CMHC, eventually as an Editor in Psychiatry. We were pretty casual about celebrating our 50th anniversary last March.

For his years in practice, he thought of himself as a Community Psychiatrist. His office in Branford was bright and full of windows, with walls of books. Patients climbed three floors up from a thrift shop, to an office that overlooked the Branford River and two busy railroad tracks. It was a space so welcoming and safe, that if Mr. Rogers went to a psychiatrist, he would probably go there. Last November, because of COVID, Michael moved his office to our house, where he continued to meet regularly with patients, albeit on a virtual basis.

But a fainting episode on September 20th led to an ER visit, which revealed a heart weaker than anyone had imagined. Then he began a two-week stay in the Coronary ICU unit at Y-NHH. When the medical team leader asked him about end-of-life choices, he said he would not want to live in a state where he could not take care of his patients. From his hospital bed, Michael was calling patients for a final check-in and arranging the last refills he was able to give; and then maneuvering the syncopated sessions on both computer and cell phone required for the web-based prescription system. The hospital staff had never seen a cardiac patient still working in the ICU.

As Hospice nurses came through our house, it was touching to hear them tell of friends he had helped; one nurse’s friend had said, “Dr. Stitelman had such warm eyes.” The replies on answering machines and text messages to reports of his passing have been powerful and emotional.

But to talk about him, let’s remember Science. At Harvard (’62), he had majored in Mathematics and minored in Physical Science. For his Department of Psychiatry clinical faculty appointment, he offered a yearly course, “Science – a reading group.” Few people ever signed up for it, but he persisted in offering it.

From the summary: “All the molecules of our biology are becoming known in exquisite detail and some of this will relate directly to our practice. Examples include better drugs, better imaging, and better laboratory tests. But it’s quite a leap to go from molecules to people, thought, and social engagement. I believe that if we want to use the molecular knowledge, we would do well to ground ourselves in the basics. The stories have never-ending complexity but use general themes and methods that pervade and recur, so reading a selection of recent papers should enhance our understanding of the range of science and its use.”

But his best and most successful course of science study was with our three sons, David, Jonathan and Nicholas. As toddlers, they would cozily fall asleep on the sofa for Science Lessons -- his reading to them from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or Nature. He surprised 10-year-old David with $20 one afternoon when the kid identified the chemical formula for 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 watch him ask hapless residents what they knew about the chemistry of the leech-based medicine they were giving him.

All of the boys continue to be 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 regularly called on his way home from working on a set, to talk about the electrical equipment used in film making.

Michael’s interests went to a wide range of subjects. He liked talking to our daughter-in-law, Caitlin Loomis, about her field of Neurology. He began reading Architectural Record to better understand the work of his daughter-in-law Allison Méndez, an architect in St. Louis. He enjoyed tutoring future daughter-in-law Lili Arteaga via Zoom for her college Physics class. A few years ago, there was a rumor in Yale’s Physics department that Michael’s attendance at their lectures, plus his bulletin board postings looking for tutors in arcane physics topics, was part of a covert psychiatry research project. And he always liked Fridays because that was the day a new Journal of Biological Chemistry came out.

And then there was music! Although he had what one could call a pathological fear of music lessons, he owned and played a lot of musical instruments. When I first met him, he played sitar and was studying veena. A few years ago, he told CMHC Administrator Bob Cole that the front lawn of 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 mandolin on his walks 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 worried that he would get picked up by the Dept. of the Treasury for infringement of trade sanctions, when Michael was trying to buy a news stringed instrument, a tar, from Iran. Throughout the Pandemic, he plugged away at learning Chopin’s waltzes and mazurkas, at a very nice pace. In recent years, in the middle of the night, he loved playing the oud, although certainly not in a traditional way.

Finally, it could be said that being a grandfather, aka Nappa, to Heidi and Timothy put a new program on his hard drive. For them, he’d strum a ukelale and march in a parade around the house; accept that a child could benefit from piano lessons; and, despite suggesting that He-Man was a Fascist when David was a kid, for Heidi & Timmy, Michael could put on a cape and a mask, and dress up as a superhero.

To honor his passing, we suggest that people take a walk in the woods, read a science article, give to their town’s land trust, and/or take a moment to appreciate the brilliant complexity of Nature in all its exquisite detail. (If you’d like to donate to the North Branford Land Trust in his name, the link is Mailing address NBLCT, PO Box 378, North Branford, CT 06471.)

Submitted by Christopher Gardner on October 20, 2021