8/29/13 – Health care is about people making your life better (A Tribute to My Father)

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Right after my father passed away I was contacted by one of my father’s patients, Susan Gast, and her husband, Phil Gast. Susan sent me an article that she wrote that would be printed in our local newspaper, The Gwinnett Daily Post. I had the honor of meeting them at his funeral and will hold this close to my heart until the day that I die. I wanted to share it with all of you. I hope that I live my life in a way that someone writes an article about me that is half as amazing as this. Thank you, again, Susan! You make it easier to grieve 🙂

Health care is about people making your life better 
By Susan Gast

I don’t think a day has gone by recently in which I have not heard health care discussed, analyzed or dissected. I – like countless Americans – have listened with interest and mixed feelings.

Just over a week ago, however, my health care died. And I was heartbroken.

His name was Larry LaViola. He was a New Yorker comfortably transplanted and welcomed in the Deep South. He spoke softly, in a smooth, calming cadence – so smooth and calming that if you weren’t paying close attention you might miss the pointed ribbing he was shooting your way.

For 35 years, he practiced at Snellville Medical Group and during that time took only two sick days. Officially he was a physician’s assistant. But only officially.

To me, to my husband, to my children and to hundreds who live in southern Gwinnett County, he was our family doctor.

He was the one we went to for camp and sports physicals. He treated us for the flu, sinus infections or toenail fungus. He got us through bronchitis and diagnosed my son’s appendicitis, even when the symptoms had disappeared. He nursed us through tendinitis, referred us for X-rays and blood tests.

A tireless professional, he was good at what he did. Really good. So good that I can’t recall the last time I had an appointment with the doctor whose name is on my prescriptions.

I saw Mr. LaViola in late spring. At a Mother’s Day picnic, I had barefooted it across rocks and into a stream at a park. I stepped on something that lodged itself deep into my heel. He X-rayed it and worked on it, but was cautious about causing further injury. He urged me to call back if it wasn’t better soon.

I remember him looking me straight in the eye and telling me it wouldn’t hurt his feelings a bit to refer me to a specialist. The wound was stubborn, so he eventually did. That was the exception. Usually we had to go no farther than Mr. LaViola.

I recall that last appointment. We talked about his children, my children and the economy. On other occasions, he talked about golf or vacation spots. Occasionally it was about our community and issues it was facing.

My husband often remarked about how he looked forward to medical appointments – perhaps not to the medical part, but to the conversations and sincere health advice he would receive. They sometimes discussed Mr. LaViola’s days in the Army. My husband likened his frank perspectives to the “sanity amidst the insanity” you find in characters of TV’s “M*A*S*H.”

It was that way with Mr. LaViola. You usually emerged from his office with not only a prescription, but a feeling that you had just renewed a friendship. Not a bosom buddy kind of friendship. We didn’t hang out with him on the weekends or ask his family over for dinner. There was a lot we didn’t know about him.

But Mr. LaViola made a connection – a human-to-human connection that seemed to elevate our association above that of just a medical professional and patient.

A few weeks ago, I heard he had stopped working. He had been diagnosed with cancer. It was serious.

The community sent cards and letters. We kept in touch with the doctor’s office about him. We heard that some patients mowed his yard and took food or care packages to his home. His name appeared in church bulletins with prayers requested. The community thought it unfair that we couldn’t do for him what he had done for us.

He passed away Aug. 29 at age 62. The mass for him at St. John Neumann’s Catholic Church in Lilburn on Wednesday was packed.

On the night of Mr. LaViola’s death, someone from his office called us at home to let us know.

I knew from my husband’s voice and subdued responses what had happened. I turned down the volume of the Braves game we had been watching. When he replaced the phone receiver, we sat in silence for a few minutes, then started sharing memories of the man who had helped us raise our children and ourselves, who had touched so many lives, helped so many people.

That’s what health care is.

The debates we hear today are necessary – but they are big debates – ones that encompass law, business, economics and politics.

Real health care is personal. It is a relationship. It is one-on-one.

It is Larry LaViola. He was a wonderful friend and a wonderful healer. He has left a magnificent legacy.

I will miss him.

(Susan Gast is a writer who lives in Snellville, Georgia.)

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Here is another article/blog written by a patient of my father’s! 🙂 Thank you, Robin Payne! It is also followed by other comments by patients.

Today’s post is about a great man.  It has been said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and I agree.  I would add that “greatness is in the eye of the beholder.”  When my family first moved from Michigan to Georgia over 30 years ago, Larry LaViola became our doctor.  He passed away a few weeks ago and his loss is being mourned by family, friends, patients and coworkers.

Dr. LaViola is a great man to my family.  He cared for me for over 30 years.  About a year ago it occurred to me just prior to one visit that he might retire in the next 5 years.  As soon as he entered the room I asked him “you aren’t going to retire anytime soon are you?”  he replied “Nope.”  I came back and said “good, because what would I do if you weren’t my Dr. or if Amber couldn’t see you?”  he just laughed and said “Hey, I’ll be here forever, don’t worry about it!”  We made the decision 21 years ago that Amber would not see a pediatrician, that Dr. LaViola would be her Dr.  It is a decision we never regretted.

No matter how bad you were feeling, he always made your spirit lighten.  He entered the room, threw your chart on the counter and said “What?  Whadda ya want?”  But when it came down to figuring out what you needed, he was all business.  In the worst depths of my depression he would sit and listen to me.  I always managed to keep the tears completely bottled from the rest of the world, but he had a way of saying “how are you really?” that broke through the protective barrier I had set up against the world and he would just listen.

He never hesitated to send you on to the next level of care if he felt that it was more than he could do.  After treating my depression for 8 years successfully, my medicine just quit working.  We tried lots of things, to no avail.  Finally, he said “look, you’ve got to see someone more qualified than me – someone with a gift of mixing the right meds to get this under control.”  I always felt and am convinced that he wanted me better because he cared about me, not just because it was his job.

He was an amazing diagnostician.  That was always incredible to me.  He knew exactly what was going on and where it hurt.  That is a gift given from God.

He was hilariously funny.  He was always crackin’ jokes.  When Amber was little she had an unbelievable number of ear infections, multiple sets of tubes, etc…  He would look in her ear, throw his hands up and say “Well, we’re going to have to operate!”  Oh, they would laugh hysterically.  They poked fun at each other.  It was like being at a comedy routine with Abbott and Costello – each trying to outdo the other in jokes and stuff.  As Amber aged, we noticed some issues that kept recurring.  When she was 13 he made the final diagnosis that made the difference between a life lived in the shadows and a life lived in the light for Amber.  Amber had been struggling with OCD and depression and that began a quest for the proper meds for her.  Sometimes I feel we owe him her life.  When we finally got her meds under control, she looked at me one day and said “I feel like I’ve been living in a pit and I’m out of it now.”  How do you say thank you to a Dr. for that gift?  How do you say thank you for giving my daughter her life back when words seem so inadequate?  I never went to see him that he didn’t ask about Amber.  He had spent so much time caring for her and helping her get better, that he always said “how is our girl doing?”

Dr. LaViola was what great doctors are supposed to be.  He was what the family doctor used to be.  He was kind, compassionate, friendly, available, caring, funny.  I’ve seen him out and about in the community and he always said hello, asked about Amber, asked how I was.  How many people have a Dr. that if they saw in the grocery store would remember their name?  Another gift from God!

My prayer for everyone reading this is that you find a Dr. you trust and who loves your family.  Find one that sees you as a part of his family, not just a patient/client.  Find one that takes the time needed to hear you and know you.  I wish Dr. LaViola had been mentoring a younger Dr. because we need more Dr. LaViola’s in the world.  I miss him already.

In my family his name is synonymous with greatness!

Comment by Ann Walker:

Robin’s experiences mirror so many more. My family moved here from Lousiana began seeing him the year that he entered the Medical Group Practice and we will always remember his professionalism, expertise and his feel good approach to patient care. Our sons grew up with Mr. Laviola. They were so comfortable with him. The had numerous soccer injuries, strains, sprains, and such. He was always interested, knew about the latest shoes to help prevent ankle strains and they connected.

When my son Billy leaned that he was ill, he just wanted to let him know how much he meant to him. He looked for him on facebook, and found his wife’s space and sent him his message.

He was such a character, you always knew he was going to cheer you up, even if you were feeling lousy. He never appeared in a hurry, at that time you were the most important patient that he had. He and Dr. Ahrendt were a great pair. You just knew that he would make things better and fortunatly for us he did.

My husband was his most frequent patient in recent years and he was so good with his many medical concerns. He left us all too soon. We ask God’s blessings on his family.

Comment by Eddie Payne:

Dr.LaViola was a true joy. Not only did he treat Robin and Amber, he was my doctor as well. We had a lot of fun making jokes about my girls, but when it was time he was all business. I totaly agree that we need more family doctors with a heart for people like Larry had.

He will be well and truly missed.

Eddie Payne

Comment by Amber Payne:

Dr. LaViola is one person who truly changed my life. How many people in your life can you honestly say that about? He impacted my life in a truly extraordinary way. He saw me regularly for 21 years. I was in his office probably about once a month, no joke. I honestly looked forward to my trip to the doctor whenever I went because I got to see him (what kid looks forward to the doctor?). He would walk in and instantly trigger a smile on your face with his typical… “What? What do ya want?” He was someone I could confide in. He knew my deepest and hardest struggles and because of this he was able to come to the conclusion and make my official diagnosis of OCD and depression. I can honestly say he turned my life around. He helped make my life a life worth living. I know what it feels like to have been dead and come alive, all with his help. It is incredible how he knew the exact medicines I needed. When I would come in to be checked for how medicines were doing, he instantly knew how I was doing just by looking at me. He had a gift, a gift from God. God blessed me with an incredible doctor for 21 years. I don’t know if I could have made it through the rough times without his help. At times, I stop and thank God for blessing me with a doctor that saved my life. Sometimes I don’t know how I am going to get through the next 21 years without his help. I always hoped he would treat my kids from the get-go just like he did with me. He was a blessing that was taken too soon. I miss him and wish he were still here. He will always be remembered in my life as a God-send and a life giver. My thoughts and prayers and with the LaViola family.

Amber Payne

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