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Building Brooklyn Bridges

Barbara Bensoussan

As the maestro of Patient Relations at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Hospital, Douglas Jablon has cut through medical and bureaucratic red tape for thousands of patients — be they Haitian, Russian, Chinese, or native Brooklynites, rabbis, imams, or nuns. The name of Jablon’s game is respect for his fellow human beings, and a genuine desire to ease the pain and fear that accompany hospitalization. The mission and vision of a Brooklyn legend.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Douglas Jablon is one mighty tough person to get a hold of.

It took three staff members, two outside connections, and a dizzying round of phone-tag before we were finally able to pin him down for an interview. It may very well be easier to get an interview with the mayor of New York than with the man who’s been called “the Mayor of Maimonides Hospital” or, more simply, “Mr. Maimonides.” Of course, once we meet him, the reason for his unavailability becomes clear: there is scant time for Mishpacha because Jablon’s always available, 24/7, for the people who really need him.

Jablon’s official title is executive vice president for patient relations at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center. He translates this into plain English for us as “everything from lifesaving to pillows for the patient.” What began as an effort to comply with new federal regulations for patient representation quickly mushroomed into a position that demands the diplomatic skills of a Talleyrand, the patience of Hillel HaZakein, and the ever-beaming countenance of a Nachum Ish Gamzu. Today at Maimonides, should a glitch or snag arise, the mantra has become, “Ask Douglas.”

Douglas — he hates being addressed as Mr. Jablon — receives us in his office on the second floor of a modest brick converted brownstone on 48th Street in Boro Park. His height, solid build, and resonant baritone give him an imposing yet affable presence. After having so much trouble pinning him down for an interview, I feared he might be abrupt, begrudging us the time, but instead he’s extremely welcoming and has set aside a generous chunk of the afternoon for us. Writer Julie Salomon’s book about Maimonides, Hospital, portrays Jablon as harried and beleaguered; today he seems relaxed and upbeat, inviting us to have a seat in front of his expansive, cluttered desk.

The back wall of the office, painted an improbable shade of deep lavender, is covered with dozens of photos, plaques, and commendations for public service. The photos show Jablon posing with all manner of people, from nuns and bishops to Haitian councilmen and Pakistani imams.

“I think it’s good to have all these pictures here,” Douglas explains. “That way, when people from non-Jewish communities come in and see my yarmulke, they still feel they’re welcome in my office.”

Maimonides Medical Center’s stated mission is to “welcome patients of all faiths, and at the same time remain uniquely committed to serving the special health-care needs of the Orthodox Jewish community, whose religious and cultural traditions help guide the provision of Maimonides services.” The hospital started modestly in 1911, as the New Utrecht Dispensary; as the years passed, it grew through a series of mergers to become the United Israel Hospital in 1920, and finally Maimonides Hospital in 1947.

Today Maimonides Medical Center comprises a sprawling complex of buildings lying between Fort Hamilton Parkway and Ninth Avenue in Boro Park. The hospital has achieved particular distinction in its departments of cardiology (the first heart transplant took place at Maimonides in 1967), oncology (a new cancer care center was opened in 2005), and maternity (this bustling department delivers more babies than any other hospital in New York State: 7,746 in 2009 alone).

Serving a community like Brooklyn can be, to say the least, a challenge. As melting pots go, Brooklyn is less a smoothly blended, easily digested puree than a kind of jazzed minestrone: one spicy, bubbling mishmash of disparate and distinct elements, always one step away from heartburn (Salomon aptly called it “diversity on steroids”). Nearly 50 percent of Brooklyn’s 2.8 million residents are foreign-born, making the borough one of those rare places in America where people speaking English as a first language are probably in the minority.

“There’s something like seventy different languages spoken at Maimonides,” Douglas tells us with pride, “and we have translators on call for almost all of them.”

This is as much a matter of medical necessity as creating a cultural comfort zone: in the words of former emergency room director Dr. Carl Ramsay, linguistic misunderstanding is “as much of a risk factor as diabetes” in the proper diagnosis of problems. Patient notices in the hospital are routinely posted in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Arabic, Creole, Urdu, and Chinese. The waiting room looks like an international airport, with shtreimelach brushing up against turbans, the atonal singsong of Chinese sounding a counterpoint to the staccato of Spanish.

 

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