A new dental practice opened recently, located about 3 miles from my home. Their opening met with all the customary hoopla normally associated with new businesses, and the advertised their arrival extensively in the local press. I had to chuckle when my wife read their ad to me one evening as they tried to convey the services that they offered. Now get this –
“Our office offers spa-like services such as paraffin treatments, massage chairs and heated neck wraps. Our patients comment on how comfortable our office is and how much they enjoy the water views. Our waiting area has massaging back pillows & foot massagers. We offer a variety of teas, juices, lemon water & fresh fruit. Our waterfront waiting area also offers Wi-Fi & cable TV, but patients are rarely kept waiting long to enjoy it all.”
Once I stopped laughing at the absurdity of not only the description of what they offer, but at the fact that they even feel they need to provide these perks!
When I was growing up in Duquesne, I only remember a few things about going to the dentist and/or doctor’s office. Dr. Sebastian was our dentist. The first time remember going to her office, it was located over the First National Bank on the corner of Grant Ave and Duquesne Blvd. I dreaded, no, actually feared going to her.
Claudia Repko Misage commented one time, that Dr. Sebastian’s office was located above King’s Jewelry Store in the bank building. Walking up the steps to her office, holding my mom’s hand, always felt like I was being led off to slaughter.
The hallways were lined with offices dark brown wooden doors with textured privacy glass that reminded me of the same glass we had in our bathroom window on Thomas Street. Each door had black stenciled letters and numbers that indicated the room number and the business or practice that was located behind the door. The lighting in the hall was rather dim and far from inviting. Dr. Sebastian’s office itself seemed to be a bit brighter than and not quite as dismal as the path leading up to it.
Once Mom and I had arrived for an appointment, we’d park ourselves in her waiting room and begin the agonizing wait until it was my time. In the waiting room, there were always copies of Highlights Magazine for Children, which would take my mind off of the impending anguish. I remember the magazine very vividly, and recall tearing out one of the subscription cards every time I visited the office. Unfortunately, I never convinced my parents to subscribe on my behalf. My favorite part of the magazine was a feature called Goofus and Gallant. The feature was basically an Amy Vanderbilt etiquette lesson for kids. It must have worked since I remember it so well. There was also a page of hidden pictures, but someone always had gotten to it before me, so everything was already circled. Once I was invited to enter Dr. Sebastian’s “inner sanctum” and sit in “the chair,” my anxiety quickly dissipated. She always had a way of relaxing me a putting me as ease. There was something so soothing about her voice and mannerisms.
Dr. Sebastian eventually moved her off to her residence in Duquesne Place. She converted part of the 2nd floor into an office suite including a waiting room and a procedure room. I remember that HUGE difference that it made just by the mere fact that the waiting room was surrounded by windows and was so bright and sunny. Somehow, the whole experience didn’t seem so dark and ominous when compared to her first office in the bank building.
As I prepared to write this post, I once again found myself researching for additional information about Dr. Sebastian. I was thrilled to find another blog written by her son Paul. The title and theme of his blog is:
A Little Bit for God and His People – Views of a Layman with a Missionary Spirit Columns by Dr. Paul R. Sebastian Professor Emeritus of Management, University of Rio Grande (Ohio)
On January 17 of 2012, Paul published a story which speaks to the remarkable accomplishments of Dr. Sebastian. The publication was posted on the 6th anniversary of his mother’s death in 2006 and recounts the eulogy that he delivered at her funeral.
Dr. Stephanie Mihalich Sebastian died at a ripe old age. Apparently, in her later years, she wasn’t forthcoming about her age and asked her family to keep it a secret. Apparently, it wasn’t until after her death that they felt comfortable in reveling her true age, chronologically-97 years old, but ageless in spirit.
The vast majority of us knew Dr. Sebastian as our family dentist. It didn’t dawn on me as a child, just how unusual it was that she was a pioneer for women in dentistry. To me, she was just Dr. Sebastian, my dentist. As Paul Sebastian wrote in his mom’s eulogy:
“My mother was a pioneer in female dentistry. Excelling as a dental student, the University of Pittsburgh Dental School (Class of 1933) considered hiring her as an instructor until a male chauvinist cried; “Over my dead body will a woman serve on this faculty”. That poor soul must be doing summersaults in his grave.
Mom loved her patients and they loved her, even coming back for routine work when she was 90. Most gratifying was seeing old patients who came to the wake last night, even at considerable sacrifice and pain in climbing those steps. Some had her as a dentist when they were kids in the 1930s and 1940s. Yesterday, one old timer related that: while a soldier during World War II, army dentists raved at the quality of her work. Mom treated every tooth as a pearl and with her feminine touch did everything she could to save every tooth she ever worked on. She practiced what she preached, taking her own natural teeth to the grave at 97.
In her day, even women assumed that men did better work. Thus it was very frustrating when she had to fix botched up work of the guys.
Mom was horrified at how much dentists charge today since she used her dental work to serve people, not to take them. Thus she charged much less than the going rate especially during the depression days and before dental insurance. Mom was happy to do free work for nuns and priests. However, the word got around and a young nun came to her saying, “My Mother Superior sent me to you because your work is free”, not even asking “how much?” She didn’t like to be taken for granted.”
You can visit Paul’s blog by clicking HERE.
As insightful as Dr. Sebastian was in understanding the positive aspects of a bright and warm office, the other doctors that I saw as a child were less “forward-thinking.” Case in point is Dr. Fletcher’s office. It was located on South 2nd Street across from City Hall and next to the Jewish Synagogue. As a child I remember the front entrance and large waiting room that met you when you entered. The ambiance of the waiting room was relatively similar to the hallways of the First National Bank; dark, dismal and basically comprised of brown leather. Seriously, did EVERY doctor or their furnishings from the same place? Does anyone remember what doctor occupied the office that faced the street at the front of the building? Was it Dr. Umholtz?
I will give Dr. Fletcher some credit, at least his examine room had windows and shed some natural light onto the situation. If I recall correctly, he had a second waiting room that was accessible through a back door. In a previous comment, Barry Long asked “Do you remember the “secret” doorbell ring at the back door of Dr.Fletcher’s office? He would come down from his apartment over the office any time day or night and take care of you or yours.” I don’t think there was an occasion that necessitated an afterhour’s visit, but I do know that he was the kind of doctor that would immediately meet your needs. The one detail that I remember most about Dr. Fletcher is his black standard poodle. I recall the dog strutting down 2nd Street with Dr. Fletcher in tow. Does anyone remember the dog’s name?
There are three other doctor’s names and doctor’s offices that I recollect from my childhood. Needless to say, all three of their offices conjure up images identical to Dr. Fletcher’s office and Dr. Sebastian’s first office. Dark, gloomy and a preponderance of brown leather. The doctors were ones that my mother or my cousins would visit and dragged me along. First, there was Dr. Silverman, a dentist that I think was in Duquesne that my Aunt Mary and her kids used. I think his office was in one of the bank buildings as well, but perhaps someone might be able to provide some better information.
My mother would visit a chiropractor whose name was Dr. Cook(e), I think. I used to dread going with her to the appointments, but since she didn’t drive, my brother and I would be required to accompany her with my dad driving. Dr. Cook’s office was the standard brown blog, but it did have somewhat of a view. It was located in Wall and situated facing Turtle Creek. The ONLY part of this trek we would make to Wall was the return trip. Along 5th Ave. Extension (Rt. 148) at the intersection with Pennsylvania Avenue (which lead to White Oak) was a Hotdog business. I think it was call “Red Hots” or something like that. Does anyone remember the actual name?
Lastly, the last doctor that I remember visiting with my mom was in McKeesport. I think his office was on Walnut Street, but I could be wrong. I don’t remember him as much as, once again, the dark office that greeted patients. My mom must have loved going to him. In fact, she continued to visit Dr. Mermelstein instead of switching to Dr. Fletcher. It seemed that Dr. Mermelstein had been around forever. I did a bit of research on him and discovered that he graduated from McKeesport High School in 1926. He also served in the US Army and obtained the rank of Captain. I found two “V-Mails” that he sent to friends when he had been deployed to India, near Burma:
Cap’t M. Mermelstein MD
Xmas Day – 1944
Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year! from India near Burma comes my thanks to you for your kind thoughtfulness to me on Xmas. I got your box of chocolates just yesterday. Boy wasn’t that good timing. Thanks a million! It was so darn nice of you 2 to remember.
Our life in India is mainly supplying troops in Burma. I am with a convoy of colored boys who are doing a SPLENDID JOB carrying loads over the Ledo and Burma Road! I run the Dispensary and must make decisions as to a boys physical fitness to drive – as important to the war as the Aviator’s. They are to be commended for their excellent WORK. No matter what you might read – their WORK IS EXCELLENT!
Today all had a big Xmas Dinner of canned turkey, Cranberry and Pumpkin Pie. It was nice to see how happy q one was about it this evening. I can hear singing from one of near-by tents. regards to Rudolphs & Campbells and Grampa Rudolph.
Thanks a million – Milt.
Dear Glenn & Cleona –
It was a pleasure to get a nice long letter from you but the joy was a little offset by the news of Granpa and Hope’s illness. I am very sorry to hear that. I do hope Hopie’s better by now. Her Larry sure must be a big boy by now. Your Harry weighs 40lb! boy, I’ll bet he’s as big as his dad. Are you going to supply him country food forever- Corn and Ham. When he grows up. he’ll want to reduce.
Things in my outfit are the same. they are still carrying stuff up the Ledo-Burma road. They will soon be going to China. I have already had a trip with a Convoy over the Burma Road. Its famous and I’m proud to have been over it. Spent a few days in China but there ain’t no place in the World like McKeesport!
Give my best to Hope and hers, & Vi & hers. Good luck to all.
Well, in spite of the typically dreary environment that most of the doctor’s offices had when we were young, their care, concern and compassion was unmatched. They really were the heroes of our day. As usual, it would be great if you would share some of your recollections about your medical experiences in Duquesne as well. I love hearing from you!!