Joel Schwab, doctor and mentor, 1945-2013

July 1, 2013

July 1, 2013

Joel Schwab, MD, professor of pediatrics and mentor to many residents and students, died at his home, surrounded by his family, on Friday, June 21, after a long battle with metastatic gastric cancer. He was 67 years old.

Schwab was a role model for thousands of medical students and pediatric residents at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine and at Comer Children's Hospital. Many students made the choice to devote their lives and careers to taking care of children based in large part on his example.

"The secret of his success was no secret," said David Gozal, MD, chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Chicago. "He cared for children as if they were his own. As a result, he was automatically adopted by his patients' families. So the kids were happy and the family was happy."

Schwab served on the Pritzker School of Medicine's curriculum and admissions committees and on the Department of Pediatrics' promotions, awards and education committees. He directed the pediatric clerkship, rounded daily with students and residents when he was on service, delivered 30 or more lectures a year, helped teach the clinical skills class for second-year students and led small-group sessions for third-year students.

For residents, he often led morning report, the noon resident conference and the monthly pediatric attending case conference. He was a fixture in the outpatient clinic, and he was one of the first people that students and colleagues would turn to for advice when faced with a difficult diagnosis.

"When their children got sick, the faculty, especially the other pediatricians, brought them in to see him," said Daniel Johnson, MD, chief of academic pediatrics at the University of Chicago. "Joel Schwab was the pediatrician's pediatrician."

Born on July 27, 1945, Joel Schwab grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Neither of his parents completed high school, but his uncle was a general practitioner who encouraged his interest in medicine. His father, who ran a pool hall, taught him that there are many ways to do things incorrectly but only one way to do them right. "I truly believe this and have tried to follow this advice throughout my career," Schwab said in talk he gave when he received the Gold Humanism Award in 2011.

In 1967, Schwab earned his BA in zoology from the University of Michigan, where he met his wife, Gail Stein. He received his MD from New York Medical College in 1971. He completed his pediatric residency at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago and was an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University until 1986, when he came to the University of Chicago. He initially maintained a hospital-affiliated private pediatric practice at the Child Life Center, based in Flossmoor, but since 1996 had focused his attention on pediatric care and teaching at the medical center.

"I am proud to say I hired him into that position, and he was righter than right for it," said Herbert Abelson, MD, the former chairman of the Department of Pediatrics. "He was fantastic. He was genuinely interested in the students, and they were instantly won over by his combination of clinical expertise, devotion to his patients, communication skills and kindness. They honored him for his teaching repeatedly."

Schwab's mentoring talents brought him many awards. He was selected by the medical students for inclusion in their class composite photograph for 16 consecutive years, a coveted internal honor. In 1998, he received the Faculty Teaching Award and was voted Teacher of the Year by the pediatric residents. He received the Pritzker School of Medicine Outstanding Clinical Teaching Award and the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award in 2006.

"He also helped us pick the best students and residents for 15 years," Johnson said. "He was crucial to picking the right people and then making them into excellent doctors, not just brilliant technicians but also caring, sensitive, communicative healers -- someone you knew instantly you could trust."

The Class of 2013 chose him as the speaker for their graduation ceremony. At that event, his last public lecture, Schwab described how the profession had changed since he first became a doctor and warned the graduating medical students to beware "the process of professional socialization." He worried that their original commitment might wither away or turn into "something barely recognizable."

"Do not let this happen," he told them. "You do need to worry about costs, and you do need to read the latest journals, but do not forget that medicine is also an endeavor of the heart. At the same time you are learning about disease and diagnosis and treatment, you are also learning about illness, the patient and yourself."

In that same talk, he passed on suggestions about how to make the practice of medicine more satisfying for them and more rewarding for their patients. "Become an excellent role model," he suggested. "Understand the influence your behavior will have. … Be polite. And never forget: The patient comes first and is always the most important person in the equation."

Schwab is survived by his brother, Jay; his wife, Gail; their daughters, Laura and Lynn, and son, David; and five grandchildren.

Services were held on June 24. The family has requested that donations be made to the Joel Schwab Fund at the University of Chicago.

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