Heal to the Chief
William Frishman, MD, is an accomplished cardiologist and the director of Medicine at Westchester Medical Center—but he’d rather talk to you about someone else’s doctor: the President’s.
photo by Michael Polito
Boy, is Dr. William Frishman ever cooking up a good read for you. No, not Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapeutics: Third Edition, though, indeed, he wrote that tome. And not Beta3-Adrenergic Agonism, although the Scarsdale resident co-authored that, too, along with a dozen or so other lauded medical texts. Instead, this nationally renowned 64-year-old cardiologist is crafting a book aimed at those of us more interested in politics than pacemakers: a history of America’s presidential physicians.
Give Dr. Frishman a few minutes to explain why people might like to read about the top dog’s top doc, and you’ll be left wanting more. He’s a font of fascinating tidbits, like… “Did you know that when the President and First Lady leave Air Force One, everyone else exits through the rear of the plane? There’s only one person with them: the President’s doctor. He’s dressed in civilian clothes, so unless you know who he is, you have no clue.”
Looking around his spacious office at New York Medical College in Valhalla, where he’s chairman of the Department of Medicine (additionally, Dr. Frishman is director of medicine and acting chief of cardiology at Westchester Medical Center), it’s clear he’s been fascinated by presidents—and, by extension, those who watch over them—for years. Nestled among family photos are pictures of the doctor with former Presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, all of whom he’s met at work-related medical conferences or when they’ve toured the hospital. He’s even rubbed shoulders with Richard Nixon—literally; they sat next to each other on a flight. “These were big moments in my life,” says Dr. Frishman, a tall, blue-eyed man.
Such brushes with greatness contrast with a humble childhood in the South Bronx; his dad owned a clothing shop, mom was a bookkeeper. But young “Billy’s” intellect soon revealed itself. “I read a book on presidents and got hooked,” he says. His first-grade teacher paraded him around school, to recite the presidents in order. “It didn’t make me more popular,” he notes.
He didn’t dream of actually becoming President, but rather a physician, like the one who paid him a house call on a winter night when he was eight years old. Billy told the doctor he planned to pursue medicine, too. The doctor looked around his modest home and refused payment. “He said to my mother, ‘I’m giving him professional courtesy,’” Dr. Frishman recalls. “I try to stay compassionate like that.” (Decades later, when the doctor had a heart attack, Dr. Frishman—who was by then a cardiologist—flew down to Florida to see him. The doctor asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ Dr. Frishman responded, “I’m giving you professional courtesy.”)
When he was 15 and a student at The Bronx High School of Science, his father died of a heart attack. “My whole life changed,” he says. He began doing research on heart health, earning nods from Ford Future Scientists of America. “In the beginning, I had no mentor. I figured out everything on my own.” He earned a BA and an MD from Boston University in just six years, and, by 1969, was a resident at the Bronx’s Montefiore Medical Center and Jacobi Medical Center, and then a cardiology fellow at New York Hospital. Drafted during the Vietnam War,
Dr. Frishman spent two years as chief of cardiology at Fort Dix, at a time when everyone was focused on presidents. “When Nixon resigned, we were all so depressed,” he says. “The next day, his picture, which had been everywhere, was gone.” Still, “I joined the reserves after my service. For a time, I was also a civilian consultant to the army in cardiology.”
Dr. Frishman returned to Montefiore—its Einstein College Hospital—and spent 21 years there, becoming chief of medicine and associate chairman of Einstein medical school. It was also there that he met his wife of 40 years, Esther, a nurse. Two other important women followed him when he left to work in Westchester—wonderful secretaries who assist him to this day. “We’re very loyal to each other,” he says.
When he steps out of the office, one of them, Carol Ruggiero, comes in to say she’s heading home. “Can I leave my cell number in case Dr. Frishman needs me?” she asks. Huh? The man who just told me that George Washington’s physician, Samuel Bard, was a Tory during the war, and only got the job because Washington’s original doctor wouldn’t relocate from Alexandria, can’t remember his secretary’s number? How many years has she worked for him? “Twenty-two,” she says, jotting her digits on my interview notes. She shakes her head affectionately. “Men.”
Okay, he’s got a lot on his mind—particularly, these days, when he’s working on his book-in-progress. (He’s close to signing a contract with a publisher.) “The President always has a healthcare worker on call in the White House with him, and on all trips,” Dr. Frishman says. “Even if he’s just playing basketball, a physician or physician’s assistant is present.” Such familiarity, he adds, breeds friendship. “Many presidents have said that their closest relationship was with their doctor.” Jimmy Carter was particularly fond of his medicine man, William Lukash, who’d served Johnson, Nixon, and Ford as well. “We played tennis, fly-fished together, cross-country skied, jogged, and watched movies,“ Carter has written of Dr. Lukash. “I could not have a closer, calmer, more intimate friend.”
But not every prez makes his doctor his BFF. Thomas Jefferson, for example, didn’t trust physicians; whenever he saw several in a group, he’d look for turkey buzzards in the sky, he claimed. And presidential doctors often deal with behind-the-scenes bickering: Eisenhower’s physician, Thomas Mattingly, advised him against running for a second term after his 1955 heart attack. A civilian consultant, Paul W. White, disagreed. Eisenhower listened to White, and successfully served another four years after being re-elected the following year. Which illustrates a huge downside to being a presidential doctor—while good care goes unnoticed, you’ll go down in history for making wrong calls.
Then there’s the cloak-and-(sterilized)-dagger part of the job. “The public doesn’t always know when something is wrong with our president,” says Dr. Frishman—often due to smooth moves on the presidential physician’s part. For instance, two of Grover Cleveland’s doctors secretly operated on him on a boat, to remove a tumor from his jaw. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in office, yet few besides his doctor, Cary Grayson, found out. Wilson’s wife—whom Grayson had introduced Wilson to, incidentally—essentially ran everything. “Usually, a doctor symbolically has power over his patients, but the President is his doctor’s commander-in-chief.”
Given how closely he’s studied his subjects, it’s not surprising that Dr. Frishman, an independent voter, has a favorite presidential doctor: Joel Boone, who cared for Coolidge, Harding, and Hoover. “He was a Marine who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for World War One combat. Presidential doctors are all in the military—it’s a tradition dating back to James Polk. But not many have actually fought in a war.”
And, naturally, there are a few presidents whom Dr. Frishman especially would have liked to have had as patients. “I think I could’ve done the most for Franklin D. Roosevelt, because I’m a cardiologist and he had high blood pressure. If he had lived longer, maybe he could have prevented the Cold War. And,” he goes on, “what if I’d been able to help Wilson, who was campaigning for support for the League of Nations when he had his stroke? Maybe he could have headed off World War Two.” Dr. Frishman would also liked to have been Lincoln’s physician, just to have known him. He’s had to settle for owning his autograph, along with every other president’s except for Obama’s. “I’m proud of having them,” he says.
We could talk all night, but the interview’s winding down—I’ll have to read the book. But I’ve learned a lot about politics, and about Dr. Frishman. There’s something sweetly poignant about someone who lost his father young, then spent his life focused on the “men behind the men.” It’s an opinion that was confirmed earlier in the interview, when his phone rang, and an old fellow resident from Montefiore was on the line. “Vic was like a big brother to me, but I haven’t heard from him in forty years!” he told me excitedly. Vic asked how Dr. Frishman was. “Oh, me?” he mused.
I waited for more, wondering what I’d brag about first if I were Dr. Frishman. His three children? His six grandchildren? His career? His book deal? How about: “Oh, me? Fine. Just chatting with a writer who’s doing a profile about me.”
Dr. Frishman did say, “Oh me? Fine.” Then he said something in keeping with his modest personality—something it’s not hard to imagine a president saying to his doctor: “I never got the chance to really thank you. You did a lot for me.”
Meet the Chiefs
So what’s it like to meet the President, Dr. Frishman?
'On Ronald Reagan: “He was the one I was the most excited to meet. He had an overwhelming personality and made everyone feel good on immediate contact. Because he’d been a movie star, when you took a photograph with him, he’d position everybody just right, then put himself in the picture.”
On George H.W. Bush: “What’s interesting about him is his ability to walk into a room with thirty or forty people and remember everybody’s name. Both the father and son have that capability.”
On Bill Clinton: “When you’re with him, you feel a sense that you are the sole focus of his attention. Hilary’s like that also—my wife once co-sponsored a dinner for her.”
A Presidential Check-Up
Number of doctors the president actually has:
Six—two each from the Air Force, Army, and Navy. One of these six is selected as the primary physician.
First president ever to be hospitalized:
Harry S. Truman (for pneumonia)
First president ever to be born in a hospital:
True or false? The president has health insurance.
True. When Bill Clinton had leg surgery while in office, his insurance was billed. (And you thought you were the only one who had to deal with co-pays!)
Deborah Skolnik has written numerous profiles for Westchester Magazine and other leading magazines. She has yet to meet a president, but had the honor of meeting then-Vice President Al Gore in 1999, when she was an editor at the New York Daily News. This had nothing to do with his subsequent separation from Tipper.