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A pediatrician who treated not just the children, but the whole family

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2005 - Autumn


As a research fellow at Yale in 1948, Morris A. Wessel, M.D. ’43, joined in the landmark “rooming-in” study by the late clinical professor Edith B. Jackson, M.D., which examined how keeping newborns in their mothers’ hospital rooms affected families. His participation in the study also helped Wessel decide what kind of pediatrician he wanted to be.

His role in the study was to interview parents during pregnancy. Mothers- and fathers-to-be often burst into tears as they recounted traumatic childhood incidents such as the death of a parent. “Is there any way that we as pediatricians could support families during a crisis like that?” he asked himself.

Jackson and Grover F. Powers, M.D., who headed Yale’s pediatric department in Wessel’s student days, also led him to a broader notion of his role as a pediatrician. “Anything that affects the child’s welfare is within the realm of the pediatrician’s responsibility,” Powers said. After graduating from the School of Medicine, Wessel worked at the Mayo Clinic under Benjamin M. Spock, M.D., Med ’29, whom Wessel considered a mentor throughout his career. Wessel’s training was informed by his own childhood experience. The loss of his father when he was only 11 months old and his own “various sicknesses and unhappinesses as a child” convinced him that young people needed friends and advocates whose commitment did not stop at the office door.

He found a like-minded partner in another young pediatrician, Robert G. LaCamera, M.D., FW ’56, and in 1951 started a practice marked by extraordinary involvement in the lives of families and by a commitment to improve the community.

“They were always late,” laughed Donna Sandillo, R.N., their longtime practice manager. They were late because they made house calls and dashed across the street to the hospital—the office was on Howard Avenue—when one of their patients was in trouble.

“People waited for them,” she said. “They understood.”

The doctors encouraged parents to call when they faced any major challenge—medical or not. Families appreciated touches like handwritten notes on the anniversary of a death and calls to check on teens adjusting to college. New Haven is a city of rich and poor families, and the practice saw both. They accepted homemade pies as payment for an office visit.

Wessel spread his philosophy as a clinical professor at Yale and through his writings. In 1963, he published “Why Can’t Mothers Stay in Hospital With Their Children?” in Redbook. Mothers across the country waved the magazine in hospital admitting offices demanding, “Where’s my bed? Dr. Wessel says I should stay!”

“I was not very popular,” he said, ducking his head to hide a grin.

Together with Anthony Dominski, Ph.D., a scientist from the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he investigated lead levels in children in the 1970s and recommended a level then thought to be unrealistically low. Eventually the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended an even lower level.

With former Yale School of Nursing Dean Florence S. Wald, R.N., he studied the treatment of terminally ill patients, which Wald believed was often futile and dehumanizing. Wald told Wessel his role would be to help her understand doctors’ thinking. “I can’t explain why doctors do what they do,” he told her. But he agreed to help. Their work led to the opening of the nation’s first hospice, in Connecticut, in 1974.

There he observed that friends and family were quick to comfort a surviving spouse. “Nobody paid attention to the children,” he said. Wessel now writes about childhood grief and has worked in schools, dealing with everything from the loss of a beloved teacher to the loss of the class guinea pig.

Wessel retired in 1993, as did LaCamera three years later. Their New Haven practice moved to the suburbs, though their successors were adamant about being on a bus line so that inner-city patients would have access. Wessel works two days a week at the Clifford W. Beers Child Guidance Clinic in New Haven.

Wessel’s daughter, Lois A. Wessel, R.N., M.S., a nurse practitioner working with underserved patients, said that both her father and mother, Irmgard Wessel, M.S.W., influenced her career. They “went out on a limb to help people have better lives,” by addressing issues, such as housing, that are not usually the province of a physician. But her parents were not grim saints. “They clearly enjoyed what they did and were very committed to it,” she said. As she accompanied them around the city, she saw patients and clients light up. “They were loved and liked and respected.” Upon his retirement, hundreds of people gathered in New Haven’s Edgerton Park for “Morris Wessel Day.”

With HMOs mandating shorter visits and with greater technical expertise expected of physicians, Wessel worries that pediatricians are discouraged from knowing their patients as deeply as he did. “There was something about our practice that was unique,” he said. “But it should not be unique at all.”