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Dr. Michael Fisher on a visit to Cottage Hospital

Paul Wellman

Dr. Michael Fisher on a visit to Cottage Hospital


The S.B. Questionnaire: Dr. Michael Fisher

Talking Survival and Aging with Cottage Hospital’s Co-Director of Acute Dialysis


Dr. Michael Fisher was stirred to write his enlightening and empathetic book Surviving Kidney Disease: True Stories of Love and Compassion after he was diagnosed in 2013 with something completely different: lung cancer.

“It’s given me a new life,” he says. “I was living a full life, enjoying my grandkids.” But the diagnosis threw him into a state of shock. “What do I do to survive?” he asked himself. “I wasn’t a doctor anymore, but a patient.” After having his lung removed, he’d lie in bed and think about all of his former patients and how they endured heroic battles to survive.

Compiling those stories into this book was therapeutic for Michael, but he hopes that they inspire anyone who’s facing medical challenges to overcome adversity. “I wanted it to be a book that was informative and inspirational,” he explains.

The co-medical director of acute dialysis at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital since 1984, Michael tells me that more than 30 million Americans have kidney disease. “When I launched the [book] project, I interviewed my patients and reread their charts,” said Michael, and he found a common thread: stress was causing breakdowns of their bodies, leading to diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and cancer. “The body turns on itself,” he explains. “Stress is the killer, and it allows the autoimmune disease to manifest itself and strike and cause severe damage to the kidney. We need to prevent stress in children.”

When in sixth grade, Michael, who was born in Brooklyn, read A.J. Cronin’s novel, The Citadel, and identified with the protagonist, a doctor named Andrew Manson. “I wanted to be like him,” he tells me. “I loved his intellectual curiosity and compassion.”

That book, and watching the television series Ben Casey, turned him onto medicine. After graduating from Brooklyn College, Michael earned his medical degree in 1968 from the Upstate Medical University of New York in Syracuse, which is where he met his wife, Leslie, who was getting a Master’s in urban education.

His wife always wanted to join the Peace Corps, so they went to Bolivia from 1969 to 1971. “I’d go to the Altiplano,” he remembers of the high plains above La Paz. “I’d bring my medical supplies and we’d do clinics there with the Aymara.” Michael never knew he’d be a nephrologist, but one day a young boy had a kidney issue. He was able to cure the boy with rather primitive care.

A coup forced them and other Peace Corps volunteers out of Bolivia, so Michael completed his nephrology fellowship at UCLA in 1972. He came to Santa Barbara soon after, due in part to our large Spanish-speaking population.

In 1999, he was invited to speak in Leon, Mexico, where there was a raging national obesity epidemic. What caught Michael’s eye was the country’s childhood obesity, so he and a partner established the first free-standing dialysis unit. Vicente Fox, who was then the governor of Guanajuato before becoming the country’s president, christened the unit “Centro de Dialysis Santa Barbara.”

In 2000, Michael founded the Diabetes Resource Center in Santa Barbara, which managed a comprehensive obesity prevention program at Franklin School. “If you’re a Latino, an African-American, or Native American, you are genetically predisposed to become a diabetic,” says Michael, explaining that there are many kids developing adult-onset diabetes (type 2) at five or six years old because they are obese. “If you become obese, you’re in danger. When you develop diabetes, you’re in great danger of kidney failure.”

After being diagnosed with lung cancer, Michael handed the program to the school, and it is now known as the Eastside Diabetes Initiative. Though Michael remains a primary force behind the project, he excitedly tells me about Diego Figueroa, a UCSB student who has brought 15 other pre-med students together to train the community about nutrition and the importance of exercise.

“This project is back on track because of these wonderful young people,” says Michael proudly. “It’s important for the target community to show they can lift themselves.”

In parting, Michael, who remains youthful and vibrant by practicing yoga regularly, tells me, “We have to maintain our humanity and we have to help the families.”

On July 11, at 7 p.m., he will be doing a book signing at Chaucer’s Bookstore.

Dr. Michael Fisher answers the Proust Questionnaire.

On what occasion do you lie?

Only on very rare occasions when a patient needs a white lie or at least a nuanced explanation that will expunge severe anguish. Ii never totally lies but allows the flicker of hope to remain.

What is your current state of mind?

My state of mind is active and optimistic despite the geopolitical and domestic turmoil. I feel that, at 75, I have a second chance to improve the health of an entire community of families that are vulnerable on the Eastside of Santa Barbara.

Who do you most admire?

There are many individuals that I really admire but Dr. Stanley Jordan, the director of renal transplantation at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, is high on the list. His cutting-edge research in the immunology of renal transplantation has saved many lives. What I admire so much is that his compassion and kindness to each patient, and there are many, is a constant. He combines the elements of “high tech” with “high touch.”

What do you like most about your job?

I like the challenge of solving a complex diagnostic and therapeutic problem, while shepherding the patient and the family to a positive conclusion with the least amount of anxiety and fear.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

This is a very complex question that could appear on a philosophy final exam and is quite personal. Each day that I arise, can breath, smell, see, hear, and think clearly, starts the day with happiness. Feelings of happiness are fleeting because in life problems always arise to interfere with feeling happy. If your mind and body are intact, one is able to solve problems and to feel moments of happiness. They say that you are only as happy as your least happy child or grandchild.

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is to lose my independence and become dependent on someone else for my well-being. This is true for cognitive ability as well as physical.

What is your greatest extravagance?

The trip to the Galapagos, which will be in 2019, will include our seven grandchildren and their parents. We will support all families with the cost because we believe that this will be a life changing experience.

What is the quality you most like in people?

Empathy and truthfulness.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Haughty and judgmental behavior.

What do you most value in friends?

Sincerity, caring, and loyalty.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Passion.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Mindfulness and patience.

Which talent would you most like to have?

To create art.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Become more disciplined.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Helping my family learn to communicate with each other, accept their differences, become non-judgmental, non-competitive, and respect their differences.

Where would you most like to live?

Santa Barbara

What is your most treasured possession?

An ancient pre-Inca monolith that was given to me by a Bolivian doctor in 1970 when I was the Peace Corps physician in Bolivia.

Who makes you laugh the most?

Recently, my wife Leslie and I laugh at ourselves, some time hysterically when we do forgetful things such as misplacing glasses and iPhones. Laughing at the consequences of aging makes it palatable and even funny.

What is your motto?

My motto is taken from the words of Winston Churchill: Never, never, never give up!

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Churchill

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