Known by many locals simply as “The Roosevelt Island Doctor,” Dr. Jack Resnick has built a reputation for bringing a small-town ethos to his big-city medical practice. The internist and former Island resident regularly makes home visits to sick patients and is a vocal advocate for keeping elderly and disabled patients out of the hospital as much as possible. In 1981, he also founded The Main Street WIRE to give Islanders a stronger voice in local matters.
Francine Elisaia and Mark Strong Shinozaki, 16-year-old Island residents, sat down with Dr. Resnick to discuss the Island life, the future of healthcare, and how a two-year stint in North Carolina changed the way he practices medicine. The interview is part of an ongoing Time Capsule project spearheaded by Island teens in conjunction with the Children, Youth, and Education Committee of the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA).
Left to right: Adib Mansour, Dr. Jack Resnick, Mark Strong Shinozaki, and Francine Elisaia.
Francine Elisaia: Dr. Resnick, tell us a little bit about your youth and your family. Where did you grow up? What did your parents do for a living?
Dr. Resnick: I was born in a displaced persons camp in Europe after World War II and then, when I was three, my family moved to New York City. My family was obviously very poor since they had nothing when we got here. My father finally settled on running a grocery store in downtown Baltimore. So, for 5 or 6 years of my childhood, I lived atop a grocery store where I had work to do before and after school. It was a sweet life. I had a younger brother who unfortunately died a few years ago. He was a local community guy; he was out there.
Elisaia: What made you go into medicine? Did you always want to become a doctor?
Dr. Resnick: No. No. In fact, when I finished high school, I started off thinking of becoming a scientist, so I went to Brooklyn Polytechnic University’s engineering school. It wasn’t for me so I switched back to Brooklyn College where I was a Classics major, although I spent most of my time working at the college newspaper, in different editorial positions. So that was always my first love. I’ve been the editor of my school yearbook, a sports editor for a newspaper, and the editor of my Medical School yearbook; so journalism was there in my heart.
Mark Strong Shinozaki: What interested you to start a medical practice here on Roosevelt Island? And what made you stay for over 20 years?
Dr. Resnick: Well, in fact, I first lived here before I opened the practice. I lived here for 40 years. I got here in 1977 just after I finished my training. I missed living in New York, so I moved back, but not to Brooklyn. My first job was in Manhattan on York Avenue and 61st Street. My interview for that job was on Roosevelt Island, in Rivercross. My commute was basically going to the Tram.
Shinozaki: If you could create a list of the top five things you enjoy most about Roosevelt Island what would they be?
Dr. Resnick: The first 20 years, Roosevelt Island was where I raised my kids. I have four sons who all grew up and started school here. We’re talking late 70s and early 80s. It was an incredible small town. You just knew everybody. When my kids were four or five; they left the apartment on their own and went to friends in the building or played outside. There was much less traffic and it was very safe and you knew everybody. I’d say that was its greatest appeal. And, of course, you were able to sit wherever you wanted, which was wonderful. And for my work, it was just a commute. So I had a nice easy life, being around my kids a lot, which was wonderful.
Elisaia: It is very well known that you love biking; you even commute every day to Roosevelt Island from the Upper West Side on your bicycle. Is it for environmental, health, or other reasons?
Dr. Resnick: I’d love to say it is a noble cause, but the truth is, I’ve been a bicycle rider since I was 11, riding the streets of the city. I just feel good. You know, there was a period late last year when I hurt my shoulder and I couldn’t ride my bike for almost three months… I felt terrible. And the day I got back on the bicycle my spirits lifted. It was so good for my mood! That’s the main reason I bike.
Elisaia: I read that while in Israel, you initiated a 300-mile bicycle race, supporting peace between Jews and Arabs. What prompted your heroic initiative and were you satisfied with the results?
Dr. Resnick: Well it is an overstatement that I “initiated it.” I just participated in it. As a matter of fact, I am doing it again this year. It is an annual event that’s been going on for 10 or 15 years. I’ve been to Israel many times since my childhood and getting to do this trip is a ride through the desert from Jerusalem down to the Red Sea. It is just spectacular and it feels so good when you do this; it makes you feel strong. At the beginning of it, somebody told me about this bike ride but then, when we got there, it was in this little village, kind of a communal farm, a kibbutz. It turned out it was a very unusual kibbutz started by a group of Israelis who were mostly born in the United States 20 or 30 years earlier, and were very idealistic. They were into some kind of cohabitation with the Arabs. This particular commune was in the desert near the border and there were Arabs and Jews living together. It is an idealistic place where you felt good being there.
Shinozaki: Another noticeable interest of yours, Dr. Resnick, is your love for our 32nd President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. We see his pictures all over your office. What is the basis of your interest in former president FDR?
Dr. Resnick: My interest really only began when I got here on Roosevelt Island. In those days, even much more so than now, the disabled community was quite prominent. There were many more people on the streets in wheelchairs. They were prominent in every part of the Island’s society… of its politics. When I became a doctor, I really got to know this population. It was probably the high point of my life; getting to understand for myself that they are just people.
Elisaia: It seems that President FDR’s illness is a good segue-way into your plight to reform the American Healthcare System. In an interview you did in 2011, you said that changes to America’s healthcare system had not worked and those still not put into place were not going to work. From then to today, does your stance on this issue remain the same or have you seen significant change in the past seven years?
Dr. Resnick: No, there hasn’t been much change. There have been some interesting ideas floating around in the last decade or so. But nothing really big enough has happened. One of the great opportunities came 25 years ago when health maintenance organizations (HMOs) began. They looked to take the money out of the equation of healthcare and turn it towards keeping the people healthy and taking care of the really sick people in a way that kept them out of the hospital. It was killed by its own success. The problem is that it worked so well; HMOs made so much money that even the original ones, which were not-for-profit companies, within four or five years of their founding, turned into for-profit insurance companies with no particular interest in the public’s health and the public’s good. When I moved here, my first job was for one of the country’s first health maintenance organizations and I was very involved with them; nationally I was on their board of directors. It has been disappointing to see it not go where it promised. It was a great idea; maybe it will re-happen.
Elisaia: It seems a big part of your medical practice consists of bringing healthcare to homebound patients. How important is this practice and how do you believe it helps the healthcare crisis in the US and on Roosevelt Island?
Dr. Resnick: I think it is very, very important. I wish that seeing people in their home was not even just restricted to the disabled. I learn so much more about people who I see at home than here in my office. It’s just a whole other person and a whole other life. So it would be good for everybody if it were part of the healthcare that happened at home. And obviously for the people who are homebound for whom getting to doctors is often impossible… it is a life saver. I work very, very hard to try to keep them out of hospitals and emergency rooms because they are very dangerous places for people who are that sick. So I learned to do some things at home that are usually done at hospitals and I’m actually once again trying to get a program going to make that even more expansive - to be able to have almost no one go to the hospital unless they need to go to an operating room or the intensive care unit. I want to be able to keep those people at home.
Elisaia: How do you see technological improvements or medical advancements helping treatments?
Dr. Resnick: Well, modern digital technology means you can almost do everything at home. All these fancy monitors that you see in intensive care units, you can have them set up in people’s homes. You get people IV’s at home, exchange their dressings, take care of them at home.
With a little more technology you could actually have one central office on Roosevelt Island where there would always be someone watching everybody who is sick: one, to avoid all the bad infections that happen in hospitals; two, because hospitals are very large, complicated systems and unfortunately make many mistakes. When I have people here at home being taken care of by the same person day after day, it is just much safer, much better, much healthier.
Shinozaki: How effective have the advancements to improve life on the Island for the disabled been over your time on Roosevelt Island, and where do you see room for improvement? Is there anything RIOC or the community at large can do?
Dr. Resnick: I think it has been an extraordinarily successful event, especially during the first 20 or 30 years. It was a much larger percent of the Island’s population who were disabled then. That’s changed over time, because very little of the new housing has been designed for the disabled. My kids who all grew up here are comfortable with disabled people; they don’t seem weird to them and they continue to have friends from childhood like that. As it should be. These people, as a result, live a fuller life in their own community, and they get sick much less while costing society much less. They’re not in hospitals or nursing homes, which cost lots and lots of money. There is everything positive about it. But there is no housing for the disabled coming up here. I don’t understand why some of the housing has not been set aside for the disabled and that’s a disgrace. It is a disgrace that sits in the lap of the Governor’s office, really. We look like we’re part of New York City, but we report straight to the Governor’s office. The people that run this island work for the governor. That’s who makes the decisions about what goes on here, and it is a shame that Cuomo and the State are letting new housing come up and not assign any to the disabled. I think that is horrible.
Elisaia: Where do you foresee technological advancements in the medical field in 25 years?
Dr. Resnick: I say, if you go to that timeframe, I think the biggest changes would be in understanding the brain. This part of the body we don’t know much about. Nothing is more important than figuring out how that thing works. How does it control every piece of us. It controls the heart, the stomach, our mind and how we think. There is a lot of research moving in this direction. That will be interesting to see.
Shinozaki: What were the goals and objectives you set for yourself at the beginning of your career as a doctor, and have you succeeded in making them all come true?
Dr. Resnick: The goals I set for myself were to get through medical school and that went OK. Then I was at an age where people were drafted to go to Vietnam. I was lucky that, when I went to serve, instead of going to Vietnam, I got assigned to something called the National Health Service Core, where I became a GP [general practitioner]. I was assigned to this little town in North Carolina. That seemed as foreign as I could imagine it would be, coming from Brooklyn. For a town of about 800 people, I looked pretty weird for that place; I had very long hair just after the '60s. But that didn’t matter. That was the South and the doctor was revered no matter what he looked like. So very early in life I got to become a very important person in my town. I learned about going to people’s houses because it was a rural community and some people couldn’t get to my office. Before I went to this town, most people like me who finished medical school then started training to become a specialist like a cardiologist or heart surgeon or something like that. I really got lucky and spent these two years being God in this little town because I was their GP. I stayed with that, changed my career, and moved completely in that direction. That’s what I do now. It is very, very rewarding. Nixon was good to me.
Shinozaki: In one of your interviews, you said that the healthcare system battles you every step of the way and that the City’s ambulances insist on taking people to the nearest emergency room, not to the one where their own doctor is on staff. Please tell us about your thoughts and solutions for this problem.
Dr. Resnick: Again, this comes from my experience in taking care of people that I’ve known for 10 or 20 years. It is not like seeing someone for the first time in an emergency room. It is somebody that sat on this couch you’re sitting on that I’ve known for a long time; especially people who are a little older and who have multiple things that are wrong with them. They’re pretty complicated and you can’t really summarize them adequately in black and white. You really have to know them. You have to know their personalities; who they are, how they react, what their home looks like. I think that has the profoundest impact on me: getting to know these people and getting to be an old-fashioned country doctor in the City of New York. I think people get better healthcare that way. Fewer bad things happen to them because somebody that’s around them when they’re sick really knows them.
Elisaia: In regards to The WIRE, you founded this newspaper for Roosevelt Islanders. Please tell us what prompted you to create the only newspaper on the Island and how has it evolved?
Dr. Resnick: In 1980 or 81, the Tram had been out for 20 months and The New York Times didn’t cover it, it wasn’t on television, there was no information. People sat around one Friday evening; they were very upset and someone said we needed a newspaper. I said, “I know something about that. I used to do that in high school and in college.” So we started a newspaper with its first headline – “Tram Scam Drags on and on….” – on March 6, 1981.
During the first few years of The WIRE, we had a bunch of volunteers made up of real journalists. So it was very professional right away. It lost its polish after a while, because with volunteers it doesn’t go on for long. Then Dick Lutz took over and professionalized it. Dick Lutz was a very professional newspaper man. He paid people, he raised more money, and sold the ads much better. He turned it into a really nice thing. I was really proud.
Elisaia: We were all saddened by the death of Dick Lutz. Please tell us a bit about your relationship with Mr. Lutz.
Dr. Resnick: Dick Lutz was a gift from heaven, you know. He really professionalized The WIRE more than anyone. He was fabulous. (sighs) That was sad.
Shinozaki: As an alumnus of NYU, how do you see changes in medical education advancing in the future? Specifically, how do you think technology will be used in the future to treat patients on the Island?
Dr. Resnick: That’s a really good question and I think the biggest change I’d like to see in the medical education is for new doctors to spend much less time in the hospitals and learn how to see people and take care of them away from the hospitals – even the very sick people. I think that it is really important to get past the idea that everything needs to be digitized and understand that biological systems are not digital. You have to be able to grasp something in person. So I think we’d be better to move a lot of the future doctors’ education out of hospital settings. There are places where that has begun.
Elisaia: A lot of people perceive you as a small-town doctor. Is this a fair assumption about yourself?
Dr. Resnick: That’s not just a fair assumption; it is the highest form of praise! Absolutely.
Shinozaki: You treat many homebound patients who were once inpatients at Coler and Goldwater Hospitals; many live in 50 apartments specially designed to accommodate these patients. We learned about Vinny, a 48-year-old man who became quadriplegic after being shot during a robbery in a store he owned. How special to you is this aspect of your practice?
Dr. Resnick: It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve done a lot of interesting stuff in my life. And that’s by far the most rewarding and important. It makes me cry!