Volume 18 • Issue 7 | July 8-14, 2005

40 years later, still ‘practicing’ medicine at Downtown Hospital

By Ellen Keohane

Dr. John Flynn, 87, has seen a lot in his long career as a New York City physician including former Pony Express riders, World Trade Center tightrope walkers and very long bathroom lines.

Flynn first graduated from medical school in 1942, and has worked at New York Downtown Hospital since 1965. In May, the hospital honored Flynn with a special tribute dinner attended by about 200 guests at the Pierre Hotel. The hospital is also naming its dept. of medicine after Flynn due to his years of devoted service to the community, the hospital and its patients, said Dr. Bruce Logan, the hospital’s president and C.E.O.

In his first few years as a doctor, Flynn treated Bronco Charlie Miller, a long retired Pony Express rider. “He was dressed in Wild West stuff—cowboy hat, chaps, the whole rig,” Flynn said. From April 1860 through October 1861, the Pony Express ran mail through parts of the West, including Missouri, Kansas, Nevada and California, before the transcontinental telegraph line was completed.

“We had to turn him over to the surgeons to remove his gall bladder,” Flynn said.

Then, in August of 1974, the police brought Phillippe Petit into Beekman Downtown Hospital (now New York Downtown Hospital), after he completed a tightrope walk between the two, newly built World Trade Center towers. “The police thought he was crazy,” Flynn said. “I told them he wasn’t — that he was a trained aerialist. Then they took the handcuffs off him.” Petit remembered Flynn and later sent him a photo. “We hung it in our bedroom at home,” he said.

During American Bicentennial celebration in 1976, sanitation workers set up toilet stalls along South St., but employees walked away with the keys to the stalls, leaving them locked, Flynn said. The hospital had to open its restrooms to the public. “We were on the front page of The New York Times,” he said. “We came to the aid of the population.”

Flynn estimates that he has trained more than 500 residents during his 40 years at New York Downtown Hospital. Many of Flynn’s former students traveled from across the United States to attend his tribute dinner in May. Although he no longer teaches or sees patients, he keeps busy five days a week, six hours a day as a member of the hospital’s medical board and several of its committees. He also works for the hospital administration. “I haven’t thought about retirement,” he said.

“I’ve worked with him since I came to the hospital in 1979. Since 1991, when I took over as chief of medicine, I meet with him every day—even now I continue to seek his advice,” Logan said.

Wearing glasses and a white lab coat with a “Dept. of Medicine” patch, Flynn sat in his chilly air-conditioned office at the hospital on a recent Thursday morning as he reminisced about his life.

Flynn grew up in Erie, Penn., where he was home-schooled by his mother until the age of 11. After graduating from high school early, he attended Fordham University, where his older brother was also a student.

Although Flynn’s father was a doctor, he didn’t always know he wanted to pursue a career in medicine. But following his father’s death when Flynn was 19, he went to court one day to sort out some of his father’s bills. On the day of his visit, Flynn listened to a case about a bus driver who had knocked his ankle against a cash box. The injury had gotten infected, and the driver was suing for worker’s compensation, he said.

“I said to myself, which aspect of this [case] is most interesting? I was more interested in the medical discussion,” Flynn said. So he withdrew from Harvard Law School and went back to Fordham to finish his science requirements for medical school. After graduating from Cornell University Medical College, he spent a year at New York Hospital, before serving as a captain in the Medical Corp in the 56th U.S. Army General Hospital during World War II. “I was in England, Normandy, Northern France, Belgium and the Battle of the Bulge,” Flynn said.

Flynn and his first wife, who is now deceased, had three children. He is now a grandfather of six and great-grandfather of one. He met his second wife, Dr. Solange Abunassar, while the two worked together at the hospital. They have been married for 18 years and now live at 64th and Broadway in Manhattan. His wife is now retired, but Flynn has no plans to follow her lead.

Looking back over his career as a physician, Flynn has seen the frequency of certain illnesses change. While some illnesses have disappeared entirely, others have taken their place. In 1942, for example, colloid goiters were very common, Flynn said. Every farmwoman in the Midwest would have a huge grapefruit-sized goiter due to the lack of iodine in the soil. Then they started putting iodine in table salt, and no one gets them any more. “Diabetes is more prevalent now,” he said.

Advances in science, including chemistry and the development of imaging techniques, such as CAT Scans, M.R.I.’s and sonograms, have improved physician’s ability to diagnose diseases, Flynn said. “You used to have a lot of trouble guessing what was wrong.”

At the same time, medicine hasn’t significantly improved our chances of curing people—although a lot has been done to control symptoms and cure infections, Flynn said. “Surgical removal may cure, but medicine has not been as successful,” he said. “I’m sorry to say that.”

When he’s not working, Flynn likes to play the piano, watch old-time movies (his uncle was a silent film actor) and spend time on his computer, e-mailing friends and family.

“[Dr. Flynn’s] been a real mentor and teacher to the majority of the doctors on the staff,” Logan said. “I can’t tell you how highly respected he is by everyone.”

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