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Final words: Roger Malebranche, former St. Clare’s surgery head, letter writer, signs off with last letter to editor

Final words: Roger Malebranche, former St. Clare’s surgery head, letter writer, signs off with last letter to editor

Final words: Roger Malebranche, former St. Clare’s surgery head, letter writer, signs off with last letter to editor
Dr. David Malebranche holds copies of his late father's handwritten notes and letters.
Photographer: Marc Schultz / Staff Photographer

Dr. Roger J. Malebranche is gone now.

Malebranche, who died this past Jan. 17 at age 87, will be remembered for his talents in the medical field. The former chief of surgery at St. Clare's Hospital practiced in Schenectady between 1974 and 2000; he improved life for thousands of patients.

The doctor also was a passionate collector of watches, clocks, crystal containers, books and antiques -- items that filled his Galway Lake home. When Malebranche passed away earlier this winter, he left behind wife Donna; daughter Michelle; son David; and grandchildren Skylar and Addison.

He left behind something else -- final words.

David Malebranche said his father, a frequent contributor to The Daily Gazette's opinion and editorial pages, wrote a last letter to the newspaper that was never finished, never submitted. Today, The Gazette is printing Malebranche's finale.

David, a physician himself and an associate professor of medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga., said his mother found the letter on a legal pad -- Roger's first choice for penmanship -- when she was clearing out her husband's bedroom. In the letter, Malebranche reflected on dreams and how they change as people age.

"The one thing that really struck me in what he wrote was that he said the dream of dreams was to be lying in a bed and peacefully die with all your family surrounding you," David said.

David suspected his father, who had several health issues, knew time was ticking away. The doctor told family members he wanted to spend another holiday season and see his grandchildren.

The senior Malebranche received both his wishes.

David said his father always was interested in social issues.

"He was passionate about politics, race relations, health care," David said. "I think, as he made the transition from doctor to more patient, that's when his eyes started to open up a little more."

Roger suffered a stroke in 2000.

"That was when kind of everything changed," David said, "because now he had to be in the hospitals and had to experience life not just as a patient who gets a check-up every once and so often but regular visits to doctors, being hospitalized, what that means, facing his mortality.

"So some letters focused on how health care has abandoned elders," David continued, "and Social Security and Medicare now defined as entitlements. As he got older he worried about his legacy as a surgeon and people not remembering he was a surgeon."

Read: Dr. Roger J. Malebranche’s final letter

People who read The Gazette's "Letters to the Editor" section would remember Malebranche. David estimated his father wrote between 50 and 100 letters over a 30-year period.

Here are some excerpts from past letters:

"My problem is that I remember Schenectady the way it was. I remember the Christmas season, the sidewalks packed with happy shoppers. I remember Barney's, Carl Co., Myer's Children's Shop, Donahue's, Bond's, Wallace Armer, the Palace, Imperial's, the State Theater, etc. I remember waiting a half hour for a table at Nicholaus' to sample their pickled herrings. I even remember the old train station, a beautiful miniature rendition of the majestic Grand Central Station. I remember the beauty, the vibrancy and all the reasons I came to Schenectady -- and have stayed for 40 years."

-- March 28, 2001

"I am a proud American and I love my country. Despite my age and a past stroke, I would be on the front line if she ever was threatened or attacked."

-- Sept. 19, 2004

"Things have improved since I arrived in the United States in 1961, but there is still a great deal of racism, anti-Semitism, religious intolerance. Mr. Obama running for president has hit a sore spot in many white and other Americans' hearts. It looks like a scab is being lifted from an ugly, unhealed wound. Indignation does not fit well in the white culture, particularly when it comes to racial matters. It looks and sounds hypocritical. A stroll in our past history will back me on that."

-- March 30, 2008

"Judges are people -- just like doctors, police officers, teachers, priests, rabbis, etc. There are good judges who occasionally make bad decisions, and then there are bad judges who routinely make bad decisions. Justice can be a crap shoot and depends more often than not on the human at the bench. Judges ought to be perfect in the matter of justice, but often they are not."

-- Dec. 25, 2010

"This nation is getting more and more dysfunctional. Americans, led on by divisive factors, are forever on the war path -- foreign wars, wars of the sexes, skin color wars, religious wars, birthers' wars, tea party wars -- you name a war, and we support it."

-- June 5, 2012

"I have a personal story on how pharmaceutical greed works. In the 1990s, I used mycology cream for allergic reactions, $40 a tube. The brand name patent expired in 2000 and the generics took over. The price dropped to $2.50 and that was great. But wait ... in 2010, the price was about $100. Now it's close to $200. Same formula, same tube. The difference? Only one generic company is making the ointment. Fill in the dots."

-- Dec. 11, 2014

The senior Malebranche, born in 1932 in Anse-à-Veau, Haiti, emigrated to the U.S. in 1961. Throughout his life, he was an avid reader and historian, a man who loved classical and opera music. Even though his business was deadly serious, family members said the surgeon was a jovial man who told great jokes and stories.

But a black doctor working in Schenectady during the 1960s could also count on frustrating events. David Malebranche said other physicians would not refer patients to his father because of his skin color. White patients would balk at surgery by his hands.

"He also had black patients who also did not trust him because they had been brainwashed to think that the only people who could be doctors were white people," David said.

The doctor, who also served as surgeon for the Schenectady Police Department, would also be stopped by police. David said officers on patrol would notice his "MD" license plates and ask him whose car he was driving. David added his father always asked for the patrolman's badge number.

Jobs in the operating room always came first.

"Growing up in Schenectady, he would be out the door before we even woke up," David said. "He would come home later, after we got home whether it be from school or anyplace else.

"Vacations could be interrupted, holidays, phone calls at 2 or 3 in the morning when he was on call for emergencies," David added. "I'd be in my bedroom, you'd hear the phone ring and then you'd hear some mumbling and then you'd hear him take a quick shower, get dressed and be out the door in five minutes, heading to the hospital."

David said his father disliked change.

"I think part of why he used to write, and write about things he was passionate about was, he really didn't like the changes he was seeing in the medical profession," he said.

The letter-writing process included pens and legal pads, with Donna always reading and offering advice before the final, typed submission was sent to The Gazette.

"She would always be his second set of eyes," David said.

David believes the final letter could have been written several months ago. And he's not even sure if his father finished it. He does know his father left life on his own terms.

"I think he knew that his time was winding down, and he just needed permission," David said. "His main thing was he wanted one more holiday season. And he got it."

ReadDr. Roger J. Malebranche’s final letter

Contact staff writer Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]

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