Anachnu: Bill Friedel

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Bill Friedel

Bill Friedel

SAN DIEGO — Dr. Bill Friedel is a modest, self-deprecating, “aw shucks” kind of guy.  You recognize that trait not very long into a conversation with him about his career. Why did he become a doctor?  He says he thought about being a civil engineer, but what if a bridge he built collapsed?  Realizing that there were risks in every responsible job, he decided to follow his true passion, medicine. Why did he specialize in urology?  He says the internists he knew all seemed smarter than he was, really brilliant; he didn’t think he could keep up.  The surgeons didn’t seem nearly as bright as the internists.  Somewhere in the middle, where he thought he fit in, were the urologists, who could deal with men, women, young patients, old patients—every kind of patient. Besides when he was doing his rotations, the urologist he reported to seemed to be a kind, outgoing, fellow, happy in his work.  “I can do that,” he remembers thinking.

After one year of a residency in surgery, Friedel became an Army doctor on loan from the Air Force in which he had enlisted.  He was sent to Vietnam, ostensibly to conduct research.  Someone in Washington wanted him to measure the size of wounds, collect the fragments from the bullets or ordnance that had caused them, and send statistical reports back to the Pentagon to help them understand how efficient were the enemy’s weapons. A major problem with the study, Bill said, was that the ordnance being used against American troops actually had been made in America.  Whenever military supplies were offloaded from Navy ships, he said, two boxes went to the U.S. military, and one box was siphoned off for use by the Viet Cong. The study should have been shelved after six months, tops, but somewhere in Washington D.C. there is a room full of the useless material that Bill collected.

His official duties didn’t take that much time, so Bill went over to a trauma hospital and volunteered his services.  He noted that he had under his belt only one year of surgical residency, not the two needed for a full residency, and told his superior officers he didn’t want to hurt anybody.  They responded they were understaffed and would take just about anyone they could get.  A more seasoned surgeon was assigned to him as a consultant.  Patching up wounds day after day became second-nature to Friedel, who had already seen his share of them in New York City where he had attended Einstein Medical School and worked at Bronx Municipal Hospital.

“Trauma is trauma,” Bill told an interviewer. “It is just big holes, and there are two or three ways to go about it.  So it becomes sort of routine, believe it or not.  When I came back from Vietnam they were showing the original M*A*S*H movie on post, and Judy (his wife) asked ‘Do you feel okay to see that movie?’  I thought it was really well done.  She asked ‘Don’t you think that was funny?’ and I said ‘Was that supposed to be a comedy?  That is what life is like!’  People don’t understand that it is a real depiction of what goes on; either you are so busy because there are so many casualties you can’t possibly take care of everything, or there is nothing going on, and people play practical jokes and make trouble because they are bored.”

Bill said the Vietnam War “never made sense to me.  We were trying to save a farming community where 90 percent of the people were peasants who had no idea what Communism was, or Democracy was or what we were fighting for.”  When he got his orders to go to Vietnam, “I thought ‘I am a doctor; I will be taking care of people.  It won’t be so bad.’  My view of the war was that it was just young kids of 18 or 20 who had big holes blown into them.  It was almost pointless.  There are times that you have to fight but they need to be few and far between.”  He suggested that if wars have to be fought , the old men who start them should be sent, not young kids.

As in M*A*S*H, there were lighter moments relieving the battlefield stress.  Bill, whose rank was captain,  remembered one surgeon who was an Orthodox Jew, a real “yeshiva bacher, who drove everyone crazy because before Shabbat he would cut the toilet paper, and take the battery out of the refrigerator so the light wouldn’t go on.  People would yell at him, everyone was living in a Quonset hut.  The best thing that could happen to you in Vietnam was air conditioning, but in each Quonset hut, there were perhaps 14 people living and maybe two of them had air conditioning.  So you waited for someone to leave so you could get air conditioning.  It was like getting an old car. Finally my term came up, I had about four months to stay in Vietnam, and I was going to get air conditioning.  And then the CEO of the hospital, a bird colonel, gave a new guy my air conditioning, gave him my room.  So I went to the CEO, and usually I never get angry—it’s a feeling I hate, getting angry, so I will do anything not to do that—and oooh did I get angry.  I said ‘you can’t do that, giving away my room’ and he said, ‘yeah, I did!’”

A mystery: after his tour, Bill was awarded a Bronze Star.  He says to this day, he does not know for what reason.  He never came under fire, never did anything heroic.  “It’s an embarrassment; it should be for someone who was shot at—that’s the bottom line,” says Bill.

Bill and Judy Friedel

Bill and Judy Friedel

The Bronze Star perhaps was the second biggest mystery in Bill’s life.  The first was who left him a note that he should call Judy, whom he had dated off and on from the time he met her at a beach club when he was 18 and she was 16.  Her father was a guest of the beach club; Bill was earning money putting umbrellas and chairs into the sand.  Their dating career stretched over the years, but because he was in medical school and then an internship, and never had much time to himself, nor as the son of working class parents, much money, he never felt he could move the relationship to the next level.  So they dated other people, and then one day, at his residence hall, Bill had a message waiting for him at the receptionist’s desk.  He should call this number.  He called it, and it was Judy.  Why did he call, she wondered.  He said he got a message that he should.  Awkward!  But they decided they should start dating again.  To this day, Bill does not know who left the message.  He suspects it was one of Judy’s aunts.

One vacation, Bill went with a brother to Jamaica.  He needed R&R from his studies, and from the grind of long hours, little sleep.  Sitting in the sand, looking out over the ocean, Bill had an epiphany.  This was nice, but he was with the wrong person.  Instead of being with his brother, he should be with Judy.  When he returned home, he asked Judy to marry him.  She said she had to think about it.  Luckily, she didn’t think for too long.

As a couple they initially lived in metropolitan New York, a relatively long subway ride to the Manhattan of the Broadway shows that Judy adored. Their very first date, back when they were teenagers, was to see the musical Camelot starring Robert Goulet. They almost didn’t get to the theatre in time.  They were supposed to meet at a street corner, and after a while Bill called up Judy’s mother and said, “where is she?  I’m standing here and she’s nowhere around?’  ‘Yes she is,” said the mother.  “I just got off the phone with her.”  It turned out she was at the same intersection at the diagonally opposite corner.  They didn’t see each other because the intersection was filled with a New York City rush hour crowd.

On their honeymoon years later, they saw Robert Goulet again by chance.  New York, the Friedels, and the theatre—it seemed bashert.  But in Bill’s estimate, New York City was going to hell.  There were many municipal problems, potholes never got fixed; and the Friedels rarely made it to Manhattan to go to the theatre.  The American Medical Association at that time published help wanted columns for doctors, and Bill suggested that they go on a road trip to California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado to see if any of the available positions was attractive.  If they moved, he promised, he would take Judy back to New York City at least once a year so she could see some shows on her beloved Broadway.

They went to San Francisco, skipped Los Angeles (“might as well live in New York”), then went to San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Santa Fe.  It was March and it was snowing in Denver, so they skipped that city too.  Judy particularly liked Phoenix, but the position Bill was interested in was filled by another candidate.  So they came to San Diego in 1973, joining a urological practice.

Bill said he didn’t write many medical papers, or develop any trailblazing techniques, but he liked treating patients with kidney stones, and thought he was pretty good at it.  More modesty!  In fact, he had quite a noteworthy medical career.  He served as chief of staff at Alvarado Hospital, chief of surgery at Grossmont Hospital, and served as president of the San Diego Urological Society.  He also was involved in establishing the Men’s Group for doctors, in which doctors confided personal matters to each other. “Women tell more to their hairdresser in 20 minutes than men tell each other in years,” he observed.  “So we got together: initially a group of about 15 people.  We meet every two weeks for about two hours.  Some sessions are good, some not so good.  The people are from all over San Diego, and it has been worthwhile.”

Another medical related activity was chairing the Happiness Committee at Grossmont Hospital.   “Doctors used to refer to each other because they knew each other and knew who were the good doctors.  If I sent someone a patient, I knew I didn’t have to worry.”  But with the development of HMO’s, he said, doctors don’t know each other; they refer patients on the basis of “what names are on a list.”  So to help doctors get to know each other better, and to make their lives better, “we have a show for doctors to do art, a concert for doctors who play instruments, and we do Chinese New Year together.”

Bill candidly admits if it weren’t for Judy he might have been an all-work, no-play kind of guy, but with her interest in the cultural arts, he said, his life and interests have been broadened.  Having retired five years ago after a heart attack (he did work for a little while after it), he has been active as a co-chair of the Education Department of the Lawrence Family JCC, helping to deal with such events as the Limmud Day of Study, and the Melton Classes for adults.

Furthermore, in addition to being the father of two daughters and grandfather of four children, Bill is a Jewish Big Pal, a Jewish Family Service volunteer position in which an adult Jewish male becomes a mentor to the son of a single mother.  Typically Bill and his friend (the boy’s name is kept anonymous to outsiders) go to lunch or for yogurt, and talk.  But they also have gone to the beach, camped in a back yard, gone to movies, and have attended a few J*Company shows at the Lawrence Family JCC.   Bill said he and the boy have grown close, and his grandchildren, who are approximately the same age, have taken notice.  “My little pal is very good at saying ‘thank you.’  Every time I do something, he gives me a hug and says ‘thank you.’  Now my grandkids do too.  It was a good lesson that I didn’t have to teach them.”

One of Bill and Judy’s two grown daughters lives in San Diego, and is active in water conservation consulting; the other is a personnel manager in Manhattan Beach.

“I love my daughters and grandkids,” says Bill.  “That’s the real stuff of life.  I love volunteering.  I love helping people, that’s what makes my juices go.  I like people having meaningful lives together.  I think in the United States, we are so individually oriented, we have lost our social context.  If it’s all ‘me, me, me;’ it is pretty sterile.”

People helping each other and caring for each other is now a goal that Bill has for the Men’s Club of Tifereth Israel Synagogue, where he has been a congregant since the 1970s when its then-spiritual leader Rabbi Monroe Levens had been a patient served by his practice.  Elected as treasurer of the organization, which is headed by a close friend and tennis playing buddy, Dr. Bill Sperling, Friedel expresses the hope that the club can be an engine of good will and growth for the Conservative synagogue.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected].  Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)

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