May 8—ALBANY — There was a hearty mixture of tears and laughter Friday as a group of influential members of the local health care brother/sisterhood — both past and present — paid tribute to one of their own.
The three most recent presidents/CEOs of the Albany-based Phoebe Putney Health System — Duncan Moore, Joel Wernick and Scott Steiner — offered their praise and memories of a combined 38 1/2 years of working with radiation oncologist Chuck Mendenhall, whose retirement led to the naming of Phoebe's radiation oncology center as the The Charles M. Mendenhall MD Department of Radiation Oncology.
"Chuck's coming to Albany made a significant impact on the local medical community," said Moore, who was himself led to tears as he recounted his time with Mendenhall. "He raised the standard of medicine in this community."
Wernick, under whom Mendenhall cared for thousands of patients over 30 of the years he spent in Albany, compared the radiation oncologist's impact to that of a famed baseball player.
"To use a sports analogy, you may have heard of 'the House That Ruth Built' (a reference to New York's Yankee Stadium and Babe Ruth)," Wernick said. "Well, this is the House That Chuck Built."
Steiner paid tribute to Mendenhall's celebrated patients-come-first work ethic.
"Everyone talks about Chuck having gone hard at everything in life," the current health system CEO said. "He's all-in, whether he's hunting, fishing or taking care of his patients. He's always wanted to be the best at what he does, and that's the way he's been about every patient he's ever treated."
Medndenhall, who's still recovering from serious injuries whose complications led to surgeries and extensive hospital care and recovery time, sat in a chair alongside his wife, Kathy, and offered his own wry comments as the trio of administrators and Drs. Jay McAfee, Troy Kimsey and Suresh Lahkenpal offered tribute that was both amusing and touching.
The crowd gathered for the unveiling of new signage honoring Mendenhall laughed as McAfee jokingly passed on the "knowledge" he'd picked up working with Mendenhall: "Fourteen Diet Cokes will get you through anything ... Make sure activity in the clinic is quiet and reserved ... Follow all the most trivial of rules ... Always be politically correct ... Avoid confrontation ... How to talk with people in a mundane manner ...
"Turning serious, the main thing that Chuck taught me is that the patient comes first, and he taught that with a passion. He is the ultimate role model, and I am proud to call him my mentor, my partner and my friend. I look forward to continuing his legacy."
Mendenhall, who said having the radiation oncology department named for him is a "humbling honor," paid tribute to oncologist Phillip Roberts, with whom he worked closely, saying, "I'll go to my grave being proud of the fact that we always cared for any patient and never sent one to a collection agency."
Robert said his colleague had "an abundance of integrity and honesty" and that Mendenhall "stood by what he believes in for his patients."
Wernick said the work of Mendenhall and Roberts in the Phoebe Cancer Center was the "bedrock on which Phoebe was built."
"Right here is the bedrock of all tertiary care at Phoebe," Wernick said. "You and Phillip — it didn't get any better than that. You taught us all that buildings and equipment don't take care of people; people take care of people."
Lahkanpal, a radiologist who is CEO of the Phoebe Physicians group, called his colleague a "force of nature, a man who lives large." He tearfully offered an anecdote that he said tells the tale of Mendenhall perhaps as well as any accolades that could be bestowed upon him.
"We have been close friends," Lahkanpal said. "And over our time together, there were times when I would run into Chuck or call him and ask him what he planned to do over the weekend. Often, he'd tell me, 'I have a patient who is not doing well. I'm going to spend some time with him.' That is Chuck Mendenhall."
Mendenhall, known for his sometimes garrulous and irreverent nature, simplified all the hoopla as it circled around him.
"This ain't hard," he said. "You just treat your patients the way you'd want to be treated."