450 West End Avenue,
at 82nd Street; 212-769-3070
2 Fifth Avenue; 212-353-0072
Practice: Birth through late adolescence
Hospital affiliations: New York-Presbyterian, Lenox Hill
Partners: Drs. Suzanne Rosenfeld, Michael Rosenbaum, Adine Brandes, S. Nena Osorio
House calls: Yes
Dana Wechsler Linden will tell you, quite simply, that Barney Softness saved her daughter Maya's life. She will tell you other things about Dr. Softness, about how when Maya and her twin were born three months premature, he was there for her. And about how he was there hugging the family ten days later when Maya's twin died. Then, three days after Maya was released from New York Hospital's neonatal unit, "she started turning blue and we rushed over to Barney's office. They rushed us into a room, I was crying, and he immediately got on the phone to New York Hospital and they didn't want to take her back, saying she should go to a pediatric ICU. Barney wouldn't take no for an answer. He said, 'I'm sending them over and you can turn them away yourself.' I don't think many doctors would have put up with the resistance and overcome it the way he did." Ultimately, the hospital caved, and here Maya is today, for the record a perfectly healthy, normal, regulation-size 4-year-old.
Softness, 46, who looks like a slightly overgrown camp counselor, has the sort of calm, reassuring manner you desperately want from a pediatrician. "Parents say to me, 'I can't get you excited about anything.' And I say, 'Believe me. I'll get excited and nervous when I need to be,' " he insists.
Softness sees his role, he says, more as adviser than as authority figure. He doesn't hand out a lot of medicine (unless it's warranted, of course) or make a lot of pronouncements. "I believe there are many ways to bring up a child. A parent might say, 'Should I give the baby corn or string beans next?,' and I say, 'I don't care. It doesn't matter in the big picture.' It's also true of minor illnesses. I'm flexible. Some people will say use the inhaler for asthma, others may want the nebulizer. I kind of believe in letting parents do it themselves.
"I do believe my advice is better than your mother's or your neighbor's because I tailor my advice to your children's temperament and what I know about your parenting style. And I also think I'm a very good diagnostician. I can sort of figure out when someone is seriously sick and when they're not."
"We've had a couple of things with our kids," says Penelope Pate Greene of her 8-year-old twins, Kyle and Audrey. One in particular has made Softness a household hero: When Kyle, then 4, was making like the Man of Steel in his new Superman duds, he jumped off the bed and got an enormous gash "right in the middle of his beautiful blond head," recalls Greene. "I called Barney, and I thought he would say, 'Meet me at the emergency room.' But he said, 'Come to my office. I don't want you to have to go through waiting and worrying at the E.R.' And he did a gorgeous job of stitching."
Greene speaks as enthusiastically about Softness's small talk as about his sewing skills. "He asks the kids what they're doing in school, and I know in his own way he wants to know if they're developmentally on target. But he does it in a humorous way. "He'll say, 'Are you studying math? Of course you've got calculus down now, right?' And they'll giggle.
"And," she adds, "he's always been smart enough to have the nurses give all the injections."
1245 Park Avenue, at 96th Street
Practice: Birth through college-age
HMOs: Very limited
Hospital affiliation: Mt. Sinai
Partners: Drs. John Larsen, Signe Larson, Beth Cohen, Daniel
House calls: Yes
Ramon Murphy likes to describe himself as "an obsessive-compulsive twit." Well, he's half-right. Fortunately, this quite enchanting man is a lot better at diagnosing others than himself. "He practices what I think is safe, strong, good medicine," says Kathy Young, a private-school nurse whose 18-year-old daughter, Emily Trower-Young, has been Murphy's patient since infancy. "He doesn't give antibiotics unless you actually have strep throat. He finds out all the details before coming to a conclusion. And he loves kids. That is just so clear, and he is great with them. I've been thrown out of the inner office because he says, 'I need to talk to Emily.' "
Young and her husband, David Trower, headmaster of the Allen-Stevenson School, have gone through "a lot of scary stuff" with Emily, a couple of cancer scares among them, and Murphy "knows who to send you to and what to do in the process," says Young.
"He can pull out my file, which is one of the thickest in the entire filing system, and he knows everything that's going on," Emily attests. "He's always been as concerned about my welfare as my health. I had a lot of problems emotionally in seventh grade, and he was always there to talk to and he knew what to tell my parents without betraying my confidence. He's always treated me like a daughter."
Those who just want to get the throat culture, get the results, and get out probably wouldn't be happy with his brand of medicine, allows Murphy, who wants to know as much about what's going on inside the family as he does about what's going on inside his young patients. "I can point out the tumors I caught or the laughter I heard or the illness I prevented from progressing -- those are all important," says Murphy. "But being able to work with families gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction.
"It's a privilege to serve children," he adds. "You're dealing with their spirits and bodies. You can see the world through their eyes. You can make real changes for a lot of them. To be a physician is like being allowed to be a priest or a rabbi. It's holy work. I don't want to get mushy here, but it's not just a living, it's a calling."