November 19, 2008

A Burden Shared

Walter Pedowitz ’65 is leader in foot and ankle orthopedics

As a young orthopedic surgeon in the clinic at Columbia University Medical Center, Walter Pedowitz ’65 saw a Spanish-speaking patient who had injured his arm at work.

“There were floods in Ecuador and this man finally got to New Jersey where he was working at one of the yards,” recalls Pedowitz, who specializes in adult reconstructive foot and ankle surgery at Union County Orthopedic Group in Linden, N.J. “He was sitting in the corner of the exam room and he looked really cut, like a professional wrestler. He looked like Popeye – everything was bursting. I told the interpreter, ‘Tell him he looks like a professional wrestler.’ He answered through the interpreter, ‘I’m not a professional wrestler; I wrestle for my life.’”

Later that night, Pedowitz shared the story with his parents at dinner. He had followed his father into the medical field.

“I told my dad, ‘Pop, what do you think about people who’ve been in this country for years and years and years and don’t speak any English?’ And he said, ‘You mean like your grandfather?’ It was like a hit in the head. That really stayed with me. We have to take care of a great many illegal aliens who are traumatically damaged, who don’t have insurance. I thought these were the people we learned on. I go around speaking about the fact that taking care of these people is a burden, but a burden shared is no burden at all. Some of my colleagues don’t like to hear that.”

Pedowitz, who has been featured in Best Doctors in America, devotes most of his time to his private practice. He also is a full clinical professor at Columbia University and serves on the editorial board of Foot and Ankle International and the coding committee for the American Academy of Foot and Ankle Surgery. He was on the board of directors of the New Jersey Orthopedic Society for 18 years, leading as president for one year, and was on the board of directors of the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society for two years. He also travels to discuss foot and ankle issues and has written dozens of textbook chapters on foot and ankle problems.

“I talk a lot on various ethical, moral, and life-promoting ideas,” he says. “Medicine gives you unique access to the human body, lets you help people in a way that is unequalled in society, and commits you to being a student the rest of your life. I serve with bright people to promote the common good in medicine and the world.”

Pedowitz didn’t have the easiest undergraduate experience. He compares himself to the title character in the classic children’s book Leo the Late Bloomer.

“What Lafayette did was be nice to me,” he says. “I was on the lacrosse team, one of the editors of the newspaper, was a biology major, had a B average, and having a really good time and I did nothing. After three years, I dropped out of Lafayette. I stayed out for a year, worked construction, and came back and was the best student in the world and had a 4.0 average. Lafayette gave me the opportunity to grow up when I needed to grow up.”

Pedowitz has no plans of retiring.

“I love what I do so much,” he says. “I’m very interested in medicine. I work with my friends for the common good. I’m in a position where I’m not auditioning for anything. I’m just me doing my thing.”

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