A Long-Distance Thank You
Dr. Ehrlich leaves legacy of brilliance, compassion
By Edward Akelman, MD
Dr. Michael Ehrlich, M.D., former chief of the department of orthopedics at Rhode Island and The Miriam hospitals, was a true pioneer.
I know many of his patients and my colleagues were saddened at his passing away in summer 2018, about three years after his retirement from a remarkable career.
The recipient of multiple awards and honors, Dr. Ehrlich was known as a “triple threat” for his ability to excel as a physician/surgeon, educator, and researcher. He mentored some 180 orthopedic residents in Rhode Island alone, plus pediatric and Brown Medical School fellows and associates alike.
The research he did here and at Massachusetts General Hospital inspired scientists across the world. In 1977, he became the first scientist to identify the human articular cartilage collagenase, one of the enzymes that destroys the joint’s surface – a major factor in joint osteoarthritis.
Dr. Ehrlich had a quick wit, which routinely helped put people at ease, and a warm and caring attitude toward the children and families he treated. While he will be sorely missed, his impact will be felt for generations to come and his legacy will prevail.
Dr. Akelman is the Chief of Orthopedics at Rhode Island Hospital and The Miriam Hospital.
Former patient gets chance to thank his hero
A chat on Skype gave a grateful mom a chance to express her thanks and her son an opportunity to talk with his hero -- renowned pediatric orthopedic surgeon Michael G. Ehrlich, MD.
Dr. Ehrlich left a lasting impression on Devynn Fagre and her son, Gavin Palmer, and they were reunited in early 2018 for a check-in via Skype, just a few months before the surgeon passed away. He had retired in 2015.
“He’s in all my heart,” Gavin said upon the reunion.
Dr. Ehrlich is in the hearts of many others too thanks to his 30-year tenure as chief of orthopedics at Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital, during which he touched the lives of researchers, clinicians, and surgeons not to mention patients and their families. He will be remembered for his gentle and affirming way with kids ad willingness to take on the most challenging of cases.
The online reunion came after Devynn Fagre sent a heartfelt thank-you email to Dr. Ehrlich – a decade after he performed life-changing surgery on Gavin’s clubfoot.
“I was compelled to write to you to let you know there is not a day that goes by that I am not thankful for the work you performed on my child,” Fagre wrote. “My child can run and walk with his family and friends because of you, and that is a gift that I will cherish forever. When God made you, he had it determined you would work wonders, and you have.”
Fagre said that her son never tires of hearing her tell about “the great man” who fixed his leg. During the Skype conversation, Gavin was thrilled to say thank you. It was clear that Dr. Ehrlich enjoyed the conversation as well. “Give me a high five,” he said, holding his hand up to the computer screen. “Boom!”
Gavin responded with a high five and a shy smile.
Gavin was treated first in Maine, where he was born, and then by a different physician after the family moved home to Rhode Island. Dr. Ehrlich didn’t examine Gavin’s clubfoot until the child was about a year old.
At the time, Dr. Ehrlich was chief of orthopedics at The Miriam Hospital and Rhode Island Hospital, including its pediatric division, Hasbro Children’s Hospital. Fortunately for Gavin, Ehrlich had developed a new surgical technique for clubfoot, a deformity in which an infant's foot is turned inward, often so severely that the bottom faces to the side or even up. About one infant in every 1,000 born will have clubfoot, and it affects boys twice as often as girls.
“His was one of the worst I’d seen … We had a really difficult task on our hands,” said Dr. Ehrlich.
As Fagre remembers, Dr. Ehrlich told her “your son has a very particular kind of foot. I think I want to take his case.” After further tests, Dr. Ehrlich performed the four-hour operation when Gavin was about 18 months old.
“I will never forget the day you came out of his surgery with a huge grin and told me everything went very well, that you were certain you had straightened his foot,” Fagre said. “My tears just started pouring down my face. To me, it was a huge miracle … like every prayer was answered,” Gavin’s mom recalled in a phone conversation from her home in Parma, Ohio, where she relocated from Rhode Island in January 2016.
Dr. Ehrlich said about 20 percent of children with severe foot deformation require surgery when they cannot be successfully treated with the Ponseti method, which involves a series of casts and braces.
After recovering from his operation, and with physical therapy, two-year-old Gavin began walking without support – a milestone his mother said two doctors had told her he would never achieve.
The 11-year-old, who his mother calls “a funny, funny boy,” is in fifth grade at Hillside Middle School, where his favorite subject is science. Despite living in Ohio now, Gavin still roots for the Red Sox and New England Patriots.
Concluding the Skype call, Dr. Ehrlich thanked Fagre again for her letter and “for letting me see that handsome son of yours, all grown up.”
“Without you,” Fagre said, as Gavin snuggled up to her on the sofa, “our lives would definitely be different than they are now.”