Dr. Irv Danesh has been an emergency room doctor for 36 years. Danesh grew up in California and met his wife, Fanny, in New York. Over the years, he has also served as a medical consultant and associate producer of the TV show, “Royal Pains.” In addition, he has written two books, “The Loco Life of Doctor Taco,” and “Doctor Brooklyn: Love & Life at the End of a Knife.” Irv and Fanny live in Marblehead and have four sons: Sam, Zach, Max, and Jake.
Tell us about your family and where you grew up.
My parents met in Brooklyn. My father, Harold, worked as a clerk in an art supply store at Grand Central Station. Salvador Dali was one of his customers. His father was originally from Odessa. My father met my mother, Yonia, who was from Schuchin in Poland. My father’s jobs took us from New York to Chicago, to Phoenix, to San Diego, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and finally to LA. It was during the San Diego period when I took off first to Saltillo, then Tampico, Mexico for my medical education. My two younger brothers followed me out of my parents’ house. My middle brother went to Chicago, followed by LA, and became a neurologist, and my youngest brother became an engineer, but now is a top-notch computer animator. My parents believed strongly in education and through our growing up years sent us to Hebrew school, lit Shabbos candles and celebrated the Jewish holidays. I think the history of both my parents’ families mandated that Judaism would always be part of our spiritual fabric. I credit this to my choice of wife. Fanny’s parents were both survivors. Marriage is easier when there are commonalities in backgrounds.
How was it to grow up in California in the 1960s and ’70s?
California in the ’60s and ’70s was a paradise for kids and I suppose the economic pain it was and will always be to adults trying to raise kids there. I guess we were lucky we escaped part of that by living in Phoenix during some of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s. Phoenix was a town half the size it is today. The school system was good. There was a small but very active Jewish community, and for the high school kids the town was divided roughly north and south. I graduated Camelback High School [where weeks ago a report came out that swastikas had been painted in a stairwell] and went to LA for college. My parents moved to San Juan for a little over a year to seek their fortune. My uncles had bought a schmatta factory that my father was to run. It went bust after a year and we all moved to San Diego, my father back to engineering, me to the University of California San Diego.
When did you first become involved in Judaism?
As I said, Judaism was always in our lives. Northwest Suburban Jewish Congregation in Chicago started my Hebrew school career. I remember the older students translating the Beatles’ songs into Hebrew. The day that would change my Jewish life came when my maternal grandmother passed away. My mother started to go to minyan once a day to say Kaddish. We usually went in the evening when my father came home from work. One day the rabbi asked me to lead the evening service. I couldn’t even start. I was embarrassed, but my mother was angry. She questioned what they had been teaching me in Hebrew school all these years. In fact, she was so angry that she hired the rabbi from a competing synagogue to teach me the service. I became the boy wonder. I became very popular in the minyan davening. Soon I learned the Saturday morning service.
What influenced you to become a doctor?
My mother, of course. I wanted to be Joe Gannon. Joe Gannon, MD, was a surgeon in a mythical hospital, TV’s “Medical Center,” who wore skin-tight scrubs, and always got the hardest cases which he operated on successfully. Medicine was cool. When I was a high school student in Phoenix, I was a medical explorer, part of a club started by a local doc to get high school students interested in medicine. One of the perks was a pass to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix that still had an observation dome over the O.R. He encouraged us to bring our sack lunches and watch real, live open heart surgery. I was in love. These surgeons were heroic.
What kind of medicine do you practice, and why did you move to Massachusetts?
I am an emergency physician. I have been one for more than 36 years. I came to Massachusetts from California because as a man with a growing family I wanted our kids to grow up in a safe community filled with friends they could meet on the streets and be safe. This wasn’t the kind of situation you could find in LA. I never wanted to really be anything else besides an ER doc and for most of my career practiced in high trauma hospitals. I only broke that rule twice. Once I worked at Tufts before it became a trauma center and I now work at a place that is relatively quiet. I’m old, 63, and trauma is a young man’s game. I’m the doctor you see when you are at death’s door. I’m the doctor you see at 2 a.m. I see you at the low points of your life. I am the doctor who never refuses to see and treat you regardless of gender, race, age, religion, or insurance status. I am a medical jack-of-all-trades, and if you come to me still breathing I will do everything to keep it so.
In the emergency room you see life and death every day. Why do you like working in the ER and what’s the hardest part of being an ER doc?
The hardest part, one would think, is the pressure of the very sick patient – the patient who comes in at death’s door. I just don’t think the sick patients are what really causes one of the highest burnout rates in all the medical specialties. The hardest part is dealing with administrators who are “in charge” of ERs and don’t have a clue about how they work and what is required to run one successfully.
You worked a lot with the homeless in Lawrence. A lot of people have never met a homeless person. What would you tell them about the homeless?
Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Pomona, Calif., and Lawrence all have a homeless problem. I’m pretty sure most people understand this in their souls, but the homeless are all someone’s son or daughter, mother or father. They were soldiers who fought for our freedom. They were university professors, artists, plumbers, engineers, and even doctors. Bad economies, mental health issues, substance abuse issues affect individuals without regard to race, sex, age, or original street address. I have seen elite soldiers who relive the horrors of our wars every day, professors from Columbia and UCLA who haven’t had a bed in months, investors who lost everything up their noses and in their veins, and fathers who just couldn’t make money to keep their families off the streets. They are all Americans – our neighbors, fellow congregants, teachers, parents, children – and should be our number one priority. Unfortunately a good portion of the electorate has forgotten this in their delusions to be saviors of the world. Society can’t help everyone but it must start with helping its own citizens.
You have been an adviser on a TV show, and written a couple of books.
“Royal Pains,” a show that was on USA Network, “about a concierge (Jewish) ER doc” was created by my sister-in-law’s friend. I helped Andrew Lenchewski, the creator of “Royal Pains,” with the medical portion of the pilot script he was trying to sell. He was successful and I became first a medical consultant and over three seasons an associate producer of the show. I worked in the writer’s room, worked with props and actors. I taught [actor] Mark Feuerstein medicine. He got an “A.” He injected eyeballs, inserted fish hooks into chests, used a pen barrel in a pericardial window, and always had a bottle of vodka around to clean a surgical surface or as a weight for a pulley. I had a blast.
Working on “Royal Pains” taught me how to write and while I wish I had been an “A” student, I wasn’t. I tried my hand at writing a spec script loosely based on my life as a medical student in Mexico. The script in retrospect was not professional and of course went nowhere. I grew frustrated, but realized writing novels might be more my speed. Over three years I wrote “The Loco Life of Doctor Taco” and then “Doctor Brooklyn” based on my days as a surgical resident at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn. A historical note: Brookdale in the old days was Beth El Hospital and where the bodies of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg came after their executions. I loved writing my books and I think that even though fiction, they were a kind of therapy for me looking back on my life. By the way, both are available on Amazon.
What’s your Jewish connection these days?
Today, I’m not much of a synagogue Jew, but a Jew who loves, supports, and tries to help protect Israel. We live in a dangerous world and from my point of view my people are facing a crisis that can easily become another Holocaust. As Jews, we see that anti-Semitism is rising exponentially. Maybe my connection to Judaism is so strong because I see the miracles that God brings forth in and from Eretz Yisroel.