Our Family Biographies

Dr. Matas

I will always remember Dr. Matas, the great man, who became my doctor. Our acquaintance began in New Orleans in 1933. When one night, I awoke with a high fever and pain under my arm, my parents first called in a physician, who not only failed to make a diagnosis, he acted with indifference. The next day, my grandfather, a friend of Dr. Matas, pleaded with the doctor to see me. Dr. Matas, who was then 73 years old, agreed to take on the case. In fact, he saved my life.

As I lay in my bed, a frightened child of ten, Dr. Matas walked into my room with an air of quiet dignity. He resembled a Spanish grandee: his white hair covered his domed forehead like a halo. A white mustache and a Van Dyke beard met in the curve of his mouth. His cheeks were rounded making a line on each side of his nose down to his jaw. Dr. Matas wore gold rimmed glasses and his thick eyebrows bristled above his dark brown eyes. His hands were delicate, almost feminine. Despite his short stature and rounded shoulders, Dr. Matas had a professional bearing. Yet I sensed his gentleness.

After Dr. Matas took charge of my medical care, he was at my bedside every day. Sometimes, he would sit pondering like the doctor in a well-known Victorian painting, his head leaning on his hand. I felt Dr. Matas’s concern. He discovered that I had streptococcus septicemia, this was before the discovery of anti-biotics. In treating me, Dr. Matas showed his interest not only in medical details, buy he also thought of me as a person. After I entered the hospital, even though I was often in pain, I liked to make drawings. Dr. Matas encouraged this hobby – he’d ask to see the pictures that I made illustrating popular songs. When my housekeeper offered to make me a bed jacket, my mother asked me what color I’d chose. I thought about it, and felt it was natural to say, “blue like my eyes”. Dr. Matas said with a twinkle: “imagine that, a ten year old thinking about such a thing”.

I was an inquisitive child even when I was ill. I noticed that one of Dr. Matas’s eyes looked strange. One day I heard the story: When Dr. Matas was a young doctor, after he had performed abdominal surgery, he threw off his mask and gloves. As he removed his surgical gown, he wiped his forehead with the hem of his gown. From this contaminated gown Dr. Matas’s eye became infected, endangering his sight. Dr. Feingold, an opthamologist, gave up his own practice for months to try to save Dr. Matas’s eye. Despite all of their efforts, specialists could not cure the diseased eye. To save the vision of his other eye, Dr. Matas’s eye had to be removed. Dr. Feingold did save the vision of one eye allowing Dr. Matas to develop his great skill.

I also noticed that suspended from a gold chain in his vest pocket, Dr. Matas wore six or seven honorary keys. When I questioned him, although he was reluctant to answer – as he held the keys in the palm of his hand, he said: “Over the years my colleagues from around the world have honered me.”

Although he was a renowned doctor, I remember Dr. Matas as a plain human being. After I had recovered from my illness, sometimes my parents and I would visit Dr. Matas in his modest office in a small frame house. His waiting room had the informality and clutter of an old fashioned living room. On at table, was the mold of the hands of a surgeon. Facing a small brick fireplace, there hung a picture that fascinated me. It portrayed Chopin at the piano, behind him a black-hooded figure. Dr. Matas explaining its meaning – he said that when Chopin performed his music, even death waited.

Dr. Matas general helper and receptionist would appear at the door to guide me down the hall to his examining room. It was a comfortable place with pictures on the wall: a print of a surgeon instructing students as he was performing a dissection, and one of the doctors, who like Dr. Matas himself, brooded over the plight of a child, while the anxious parents waited. Here, in Dr. Matas’s examining room, I lay on a sturdy table that was covered with a pad. Dr. Matas made his careful examination while Serena held for him what looked like a plumber’s trouble light attached to a long cord. Then, Dr. Matas accompanied me back to the waiting room. As he chattered with my parents and me, he had the air of a country doctor who had unlimited time to talk and to listen.

Many years later when I was a young woman, I discovered a letter that Dr. Matas had written to my parents:

My dear friends,

Yesterday, I received your most gracious and grateful letter and payment for services rendered to “our dear Carol” . In caring for her professionally during the great trial that imperiled her life, last summer, I shared your worries and anxieties with a deep sympathy and with a sense of responsibility that could hardly have been greater had she been my own child.

Dr. Matas added that his interest and readiness to help would continue.

He always did remain a friend. When I married, Dr. Matas sent me a gift of a bottle of wine. On the card he wrote:

For my dear Carol on her wedding day from her old doctor and friend, Rudolph Matas, a toast on her wedding day.

Even in his nineties, he maintained his active interest.

Having known this great man Dr. Rudolph Matas over the years, I was always surprised that he never needed to show his importance. His honor’s showed him pleasure, but he cherished simple joys.