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Burt Lee’s lifelong dedication to medical excellence

Photo: Dr. Gerry Pierone with Dr. Burton Lee III, who passed away last week at the age of 86.

Several years ago, Gail DeGioia, who moved to Vero Beach from Bennington, Vermont, was surprised to see her late husband’s oncologist, Burt Lee, eating dinner at the Ocean Grill in Vero Beach.

“My first thought,” said DeGioia, who is a registered nurse in Vero, “was to wonder what such a prominent New York oncologist was doing here. My second thought was to figure out how to thank him for keeping my husband alive way beyond what was predicted.”

But, at the time, says DeGioia, she was too shy to approach him, and it would be years before she completed her mission. When she finally did this past September, Lee, 86, was suffering from complications with bladder cancer that would soon end his own life.

He died at his Riomar home last Friday, Nov. 25, with his wife of 50 years, Ann Kelly Lee, and his three children by his side. 

After 32 years as a physician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering – 29 as attending senior physician and chief of the Lymphoma Division – he and Ann moved to Washington, D.C. in 1989 when he was appointed White House physician to George H.W. Bush.

It was Lee who dove under the table in Japan during that famous televised scene when Bush passed out in his dinner plate. Lee crawled to Bush, amid the legs and linen, loosening his shirt and pants to examine him and discover that the president was severely dehydrated.

It was also Lee who took a clandestine jet flight in the middle of the night to treat Boris Yeltsin’s mother in Siberia. His medical staff remembers his warning to them en route: “No vodka until we finish.”

For decades after Bush 41 left the White House, the president and Lee stayed in touch as close friends, and Lee held a reunion in Vero every few years for the White House medical staff of five nurses.

“Dr. Lee was our beloved and dedicated friend, the most giving physician we have ever known,” said retired White House nurse Paula Trivette, a lieutenant colonel in the Army.

“The world will be a less joyful place without Burt Lee,” said Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury Nick Brady, who fondly recalled a variety of vacations with Lee, including Islamorada fishing trips with Bush.

“When we played golf, Burt would say that as a physician he was very disciplined, but it was not something that translated to his chipping,” said Brady.

The treasury secretary and doctor had been friends since Yale, graduating together in the class of 1952. Lee had come to Yale from Phillips Andover Academy and hoped to become a physician. But, he said, he couldn’t score high enough in organic chemistry to get into Columbia Medical School where he wanted to go and almost gave up, before his grandfather Charles Auchincloss hatched a plan.

“Dear boy,” Lee recalled his grandfather saying, “we need to hire a Yale lab instructor to be a live-in tutor for the summer.”

“The draw was that my grandfather’s brownstone on 70th and Park was air-conditioned,” said Lee.

But, even with the tutor, who was quite happy with the cool temperature and deluxe surroundings, Lee fell one point short of the required score to enter Columbia med school. It took his wife Polly, soon to be the mother of their three children, to get him in.

“She went to the hospital where the admissions chief was a patient and went in his room and begged him to take a chance on me,” said Lee.

As a result, he entered Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in the fall of 1952, which he always called “P’n S.”

When he was in VNA Hospice a few weeks ago, Lee’s grandson Sam, a third-year student at “P’n S” and one of five grandchildren, called him to talk about classes.

After they hung up, Lee, always self-deprecating, muttered, “Ten times smarter than I ever was.”

But by all accounts Lee was a star student in medical school, with an uncanny sense of diagnosing patients (whom he never called “patients” but “people”) based on physical examinations, observations and conversations with them and their families.

After medical school, he interned at Bellevue Hospital in New York, overseeing the care of dozens of patients in rows of metal beds in drafty rooms with open windows. From there, he went to Marine boot camp at Parris Island, and then worked as a doctor at an Army hospital in Stuttgart, Germany, where he lived with Polly and their three children, Chip Lee, Jackie Antoine and Roz Naylor.

He later described his first wife as “my best friend until things fell apart,” and his second wife Ann, whom he met three years after his divorce, as “someone I was crazy, madly in love with.”

After his military stint, Lee was offered a position at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. One of his fellows, Paul Hetzel, now an oncologist in Springfield, Mass., described Lee as “someone who could read a patient better than anyone I know.”

He also said Lee taught him another hugely important lesson: “Never be afraid to question something you don’t think is right.”

Among the high-profile patients whom Lee advised was the Shah of Iran. But Lee’s recommendation of immediate spleen surgery was not followed and later became the subject of arguments over whether that might have saved the shah’s life.

He also advised Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, his sister’s close friend, to get aggressive treatment for her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – to “throw the kitchen sink at it.” But she, instead, chose a less grueling treatment.

In 1980, unknown court reporter Louis DeGioia came to Sloan-Kettering with lymphoma and was assigned to Burt Lee. As with all of his “people,” Lee was a great listener and very serious.

“He spent an amazing amount of time with my husband and kept him alive and healthy way beyond what we had been told was possible,” said his widow, Gail DeGioia.

“I was at Memorial when we were conquering blood and lymph cancers that had been terminal. It was a heady time to be there,” said Lee, who wrote or co-authored over 140 research papers advancing the treatment of blood cancers and AIDS.

Lamenting that doctoring was becoming too much about money, Lee treated farmers who gave him produce as payment and others who could pay nothing – among them a teenager on Medicaid with lymphoma, who later became a Wall Street Journal reporter.

Years later, that reporter, Lucette Lagnado, wrote a piece about Lee that began, “In one of his famous paintings, Norman Rockwell depicted a kindly physician treating an obviously frightened little girl who is holding a doll. Using his stethoscope, the doctor pretends to check the doll’s heart, but it is clear that his real interest is the health of the child. I could well have been that girl, while the doctor, with his imminent compassion and insight, reminds me of Burton Lee, the physician who has taken care of me since I was 16.”

From MSK, where Lee also became heavily involved in the treatment of AIDS patients, he became White House physician to President Bush and served on the HIV-AIDS Commission. After the White House, he ran a biotech firm in Boston then started a cancer center in Greenville, South Carolina. After 9/11 he became an outspoken opponent of torture and wrote op-eds against it.

“Because of my devotion to country, respect for our military and commitment to the ethics of the medical profession, I speak out against systematic government sanctioned torture and excessive abuse of prisoners during our war on terrorism,” an opinion piece he wrote for the Washington Post began.

In the late 1990s, he and Ann moved to a quiet oak-lined street in Riomar, where a nightly ritual of a Mount Gay rum and grapefruit juice and hibiscus on the dinner table reminded them of decades of vacations in the Bahamas with Ann’s three kids, Debbie Gilette, Wendy Hall and Lee Judson, who lived with them when they were growing up, and Burt’s three kids who spent vacations and summers with them.

Friends who have spent time with the Lees are quick to say how Ann, always elegant and kind, took great joy in making Burt happy.

In Vero Beach, Lee served on the Hospital District as a volunteer trustee from 1999 to 2014, deciding with six other trustees how to direct tax dollars for healthcare for those who couldn’t pay. Such work came naturally to him after years of making speeches to prestigious national medical boards about the need for doctors “to take care of the poor.”

As chairman of the District board, Lee had a reputation for taking on contentious subjects that others were reluctant to tackle.

Dr. Tom Spackman, who served with Lee on the District for years and also was chairman, called him “a curmudgeon in the best sense of the word – an opinionated, fair-minded, tough guy.”

“Burt Lee was totally committed to having the District do the right thing for needy patients and the taxpayers, and I’ll miss him a lot,” said Spackman.

After years as an unquestioning supporter of hospital leadership, Lee took on the hospital in the past few years when he disagreed with what was happening.

Well-versed in what makes a successful cancer center, he repeatedly warned hospital leadership: “A cancer center is not a beautiful building; it’s the doctors and staff who work there, and I don’t know how you will attract the number of quality oncologists and surgeons you need in order to have a full-fledged cancer center.” 

He also worried aloud that the hospital board of directors was too quick to endorse hospital leadership positions, and repeatedly challenged them to quit acting as if they “were being spoon-fed chocolate ice cream” when the CEO wanted something.

Lee also served on the board of the Whole Family Health Center, an outgrowth of an AIDS clinic founded by Dr. Gerry Pierone in Fort Pierce in the mid-1990s. At a recent dinner honoring Lee, board member Chuck Cunningham described Lee as “never soft but always sensitive.”

Pierone said that Lee had frequently “pulled us out of the fire” and “saved us” when the nonprofit faced financial problems.

“How can one not love Burt Lee?” Pierone asked. “His strong personality is matched with a deep commitment to decency, human rights and dedication to medical excellence. I consider it to be a high honor to be Dr. Lee’s doctor and friend.”

When asked to speak, Lee said, “I thought I was a very dedicated doctor but I come up $10 short compared to Gerry Pierone.”

But many who know Burt Lee, and who have watched him in action, would disagree, including Gail DeGioia, who finally sent a written message to her husband’s doctor after 27 years.

Meeting a friend of his one night at The Patio restaurant in downtown Vero, she scribbled on a cocktail napkin: “Dr. Lee, Thank you for the eight additional wonderful years I was able to have with my husband, Louis DeGioia, because of you.”

A few days later, the friend took the crumpled napkin with the message to Lee who was, by then, under hospice care. Tears streamed down his face when he read it. 

“I can’t imagine anything more meaningful,” he said.

And, anyone who had the great pleasure of knowing this compassionate, wry, articulate, brilliant doctor knows this to be true.