Harry Flaster, PhD, MD 1953-2007

In May, Harry Flaster, a much-beloved physician in the Santa Barbara medical community, died suddenly at the age of 53. Dr. Flaster was a pulmonary and critical care specialist who practiced at Sansum Clinic. I knew him for more than 20 years, having worked with him when he was a medical resident and fellow at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. When he relocated to Santa Barbara seven years ago, we renewed our professional relationship as colleagues, and strengthened our longtime friendship.

Harry Flaster, PhD, MD 1953-2007

Harry wasn’t the Madison Avenue stereotype of a doctor: starched white coat, conservative tie, neatly coifed hair, trimmed beard. No; Harry could not be stereotyped-slowly and softly trotting down the halls, shirttails flopping in the breeze, coat collar askew. But this mental image of Harry belied what lay beneath: an intelligent, skilled physician, a compassionate and generous person, a wonderful teacher with an extraordinary sense of humor, a true and loyal friend, and a lover of dogs and baseball.

Harry was a wonderful doctor, both knowledgeable and compassionate. But while he was meticulous in his care of patients, he was sloppy in his record keeping, which became the bane of his existence. He was a real patient advocate, always giving his patients the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes he continued to aggressively treat patients when others had given up hope, and he often proved them wrong. He truly revered the sanctity of life.

Harry read lots of textbooks. He bought them when they were first published, and unlike most of us who glance through them and then plop them onto our bookshelves where they look good and collect dust, Harry actually read them. He had a huge fund of knowledge, and understood the subtleties of disease. Thanks to his background with a PhD in chemistry and his pharmacist sister Anette, he had particular insight into drug therapy.

Harry was generous to a fault. He gave away far more of his Dodger season tickets than he ever used himself. Whenever I asked him why he bought thousands of dollars in season tickets every year, when he would only go to four or five games a season himself, he would just shrug his broad shoulders and ask me if I wanted tickets to the game that weekend. He got real pleasure out of giving away those tickets, seeing the joy they brought others. And his generosity didn’t stop there; Harry would buy all the nurses and residents lunch on the weekends he was on call. He bought residents textbooks, simply to help them be better doctors.

Harry was also an outstanding teacher who really cared about the residents and nurses with whom he worked and taught. As a tribute to this teaching and caring, the house staff of Cottage Hospital posthumously awarded him the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award a few weeks ago. Harry was very humble, and I’m sure he would have had a hard time accepting the award, likely doing it with a sheepish grin and self-deprecating joke hiding his inner happiness.

And then there was that sense of humor. That’s what we all seem to remember the most about Harry, the way he told jokes so deadpan and straight-faced that he could make up outrageous stories and get anyone to believe him. Even after 20 years, I still could never tell when he was kidding. I eventually stopped trying, and just assumed everything he said was a joke. Ninety-five percent of the time this was a good strategy, but the other 5 percent, it could get me into serious trouble. New nurses and residents who didn’t know him would sometimes be aghast at things Harry said, while those of us who knew him would just shake our heads and chuckle in the background as he stringed out another tall tale. Eventually, Harry would take mercy on his victims, letting them know it was all in fun.

Everything about Harry was tinged with humor, even his cell phone ring: the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. He used humor not just as entertainment, though, but also to make a point. This was particularly true in our department meetings, where he would see right through some politically expedient motion thinly disguised as something else. He’d embellish the proposal in some extreme and humorous way, which pointed out the absurdity or hypocrisy of the original motion. I enjoyed these theatrics, but administrators often cringed when he raised his hand.

Harry was a team player. Back when we were training together at L.A. County, we had Aloha Fridays, which meant wearing Hawaiian shirts. When we decided to start the tradition among the house staff at Cottage, Harry was the only other attending to wear a Hawaiian shirt, and did so every Friday thereafter without fail.

Still, sometimes Harry was at first a reluctant team player. He’d complain about this and that in a gloomy way, like Eeyore, but he had a very hard time saying no. In the end, he always came through for everyone. He was amazingly loyal, and was always there when I needed him. He was a great friend to me, and I wonder whether I was as great a friend to him. Harry was lonely, especially after his beloved Rex died. We all lead busy lives, particularly those of us with children. And while we made efforts to get him involved at times, I think we should have tried harder. And for that, I’m truly sorry, Harry.

Although a true-blue Dodger fan, Harry also loved the game itself. He’d go to any game of any team at any stadium if he had the chance. Once, years ago, while at a medical meeting in Houston, he asked if I had ever seen the Astrodome. When I said no, he took a whole group of us to see an Astros game. It was the only time I ever went to a game with Harry. You could see he loved it all-the game, the crowd, the vendors hawking their peanuts, the entire experience. Yes, one of Harry’s greatest loves was baseball, and in many ways, the game was a metaphor for his life.

Many people who don’t really know baseball find it slow and unglamorous. Harry moved slowly and never made the cover of GQ or Sports Illustrated. But baseball isn’t slow: It’s deliberate. And so was Harry. Understood superficially, baseball might seem simple, but it actually has great depth and strategy, just like Harry. Baseball has tradition, and tradition, both religious and secular, was very important to Harry. Baseball is dependent on loyalty, and Harry was truly loyal. If Harry had been a baseball player, he wouldn’t have been a home-run hitter. Though he might admire the power and strength of it, he didn’t like the limelight and glamor. No, Harry would have been a singles champion, hitting single after single, knocking in run after run. And he’d get walked a lot, as he’d patiently wait for that perfect pitch. Baseball is about setting records, but the players don’t have to keep track of the records themselves, and that would have made Harry very happy.

I think the most amazing play in baseball is not the home run or even the grand slam. These have been done thousands of times throughout the years by good, mediocre, and even poor players. No, I think stealing home is the most amazing play. It requires skill and patience and courage. It requires subtle deceit as the runner tries to disguise his true intent. It is very rare indeed that a player can do it successfully. And while I can’t honestly say I can imagine Harry moving fast enough to steal home, in the Baseball Game of Life, wearing a clever disguise, Harry stole home and successfully stole our hearts. Harry, we love you, and we’ll miss you. Aloha.

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