Two Saints & A Surgeon

Nellie Taaffe O'Connell

By Emmett O'Connell, Contributor
June / July 2006

In the 1930s and 40s the neighborhood doctor was vital to the community.

Dr. Hubert Kubel’s office was on the ground floor of a five-story-over-basement apartment house of the type with low-rise stoops leading from the sidewalk up to the hallway entrance. Across the broad cobble-stone thoroughfare and trolley tracks of 138th Street stood the Gothic-style edifice of St. Luke’s Catholic Church. Rising gently from Brook Avenue, 138th Street reached its crescent just beyond.  A hollow-sounding “gong” would announce each patient entering Dr. Kubel’s office. Inevitably, they would have to shuffle in sideways as the office door struck the leg of a chair in a crowded waiting room. Body odors mixed with the astringent smells of antiseptic lotions and bandages, but most notably it was always warm. Even on the coldest days, the heavy cast iron radiators hissed and gurgled a chorus of comfort. Dr. Kubel was slightly built with a widow’s peak of steel-gray hair. He wore wire-framed glasses over his twinkling eyes and sported a small 1930-style mustache. Always smiling, each patient or supplicant was greeted by name. You would imagine he was greeting an old friend not seen in years. Jewish doctors held a special position in the Irish, Italian, Eastern European immigrant mix that went to make up much of the South Bronx. Catholic mothers-of-five could discuss matters with a Jewish doctor that couldn’t be mentioned elsewhere. Working men of the 1930s, often of socialist inclination, could seek character references for employment from the only professional dignitary they were likely to know, complete with personal letterhead paper, initials before and after their names, and a telephone number to boot. Dr. Kubel’s office served as a secular confessional in addition to a medical practice. He, and others like him, provided much of the adhesive that held together the disparate social structure of the South Bronx. In the evenings, he made his rounds of house calls. If unsure of directions to the building or apartment, he would ask for assistance from any of the young men gathered at street corners or in hallways. As likely as not, he would be personally guided to his destination. Everybody knew Dr. Kubel. There were five children in the O’Connell household, and Dr. Kubel was a frequent visitor when the usual childhood lumps, bumps and fevers needed curing. My mother always had the two-dollar doctor’s fee (that’s right, two dollars) ready on the kitchen table, along with a fresh cup of tea. If I was to be the subject of his ministrations, the story would be told again how special I was, as it was Dr. Kubel who brought me into the world, and how he had to leave his wedding day celebrations to make the delivery. The story was told to me so often, and from such a young age, I never questioned the circumstances that had brought about such a curious situation. Some forty years later, in the early 1970s, I finally discovered the full details. By the 1960s, the O’Connell children had grown up and shipped out to Rockland County, Texas, and Europe. My parents retired on my father’s modest pension and, after 47 years in New York, moved back to their native Ireland. In 1974, my mother was taken seriously ill and I went to visit her in hospital in Dublin. When inquiring of her condition with the staff doctors, it was mentioned to me the necessity of getting a full disclosure from my mother of previous illnesses and operations. Apparently, she had been less than forthcoming. The doctors had noted during examination a large scar across her abdomen, which was too extensive to be appendicitis. What caused it, they had no idea. I gently chided her for not helping “the poor doctors” sort out the mystery. “Oh that,” she said. “It’s a long story of long ago. We were living in a cold-water flat on 136th Street, near where the Triboro Bridge begins. I was heavy with child when severe pains struck my stomach and side. “Really bad pains,” she added, placing a hand on her abdomen. Dr. Kubel was summoned. A pregnant mother in distress was high on his priority list. Hastily, she was admitted to the public ward in the old Lincoln Hospital and an operation was scheduled. It was serious, Dr. Kubel told her. The baby would be lost, aborted. “I refused the operation,” she said “and Dr. Kubel pleaded that both our lives, mine and the baby’s, would be lost if drastic action wasn’t taken. “Still, I refused to lose the child.” Dr. Kubel left the ward and returned with the surgeon who was to carry out the critical operation. “He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jew,” she said, “and I have prayed for him every day of my life since then.” In a final attempt at persuasion, the surgeon spoke of the dangers and risks involved unless the suggested provision was followed. “Still I refused. Dr. Kubel was crying by now. He was sure it would all end in tragedy. The surgeon promised to do everything possible to save the baby, and I was wheeled away to the operating theater.” The following day she awoke, groggy and sore, but still carrying the child. “The surgeon was as good as his word, and two months later I gave birth to a healthy baby. Do you know which of the five of ye it was?” she queried. “No,” said I, in a monosyllabic reply, my mind now frozen in the unfolding drama. “It was you,” she said, pointing a finger in my direction, “and when I wonder how it was that you got on so well in life, I put it down to God making up for the hard time you had coming into the world.” We buried my mother shortly after her telling me that story, and at her funeral mass I lit a candle and said a silent prayer: Thanks be to God, to my mother, to the blond-haired, blue-eyed surgeon, and to Dr. Kubel.

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