Teddy Atlas speaks about ‘The Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Foundation’
by Geoffrey Ciani - The Doctor Theodore A. Atlas Foundation is a New York based community service organization that provides help and support to those in need, in particular children. Founded in 1997 by boxing trainer and commentator Teddy Atlas, the Foundation was created to celebrate the memory of Teddy’s father who practiced medicine until he was 80 years old.
I was afforded the opportunity to ask Teddy about The Doctor Theodore A. Atlas Foundation on a recent edition of On the Ropes Boxing Radio. This was a great honor for me personally because Doctor Atlas was my father’s family doctor on Staten Island when he was growing up. My father and relatives have told me many touching stories about the generosity that was commonplace in the everyday life of Dr. Atlas, who frequently made house calls to poor families at little or no charge.
The following is a transcript of what Teddy Atlas had to say about his father and the Foundation:
My father, as you just touched on, he was a doctor. He was a GP, a General Practitioner, and he practiced medicine 55 years. He understood what a doctor should be as a human being, not just as a practitioner of medicine. He took care of people for all those years. He founded two hospitals. He actually founded a hospital called Sunny Side that had twenty beds in it on Staten Island many, many years ago and the genesis of that, the inspiration of it was that he found there were a lot of poor people back in those days. There were no HMOs there, there was no real health care, and either you could afford to get hospitalization or you couldn’t.
They used to do a lot of tonsillectomies in those days where kids needed to get their tonsils removed and a simple thing like that was a big procedure for a family that couldn’t afford it and he wound up doing them free—it just became a thing where he decided he would do free tonsillectomies on Wednesdays in his office. He would just make a makeshift operating room and he would lay down cots, and blankets, and pillows mostly. He’d operate on the kids and then hold them during the day because when you did tonsillectomies those days you had to make sure that the patient didn’t hemorrhage afterwards. So he’d hold them during the day and at night and the parents would pick up the kids. That grew until the point where he couldn’t even accommodate in the office anymore. So he said, “You know, I have to go build a hospital”.
So he built this little twenty bed hospital, and again, what he basically did was he took care of people that needed to get hospitalized. He absorbed the costs himself. The ones who could pay for it paid for and it helped carry the bills but with the rest of them he just absorbed it. He did that for twenty somewhat years and then the city built the highway. They built the Verrazano Bridge and the highway leading to the Verrazano Bridge and the hospital was right in the area where the highway was going to be. So they came to my father, they bought the hospital from him, they tore it down, they put the highway up, and he founded another hospital—a doctor’s hospital—with sixty doctors and he continued to do things the same way.
I just figured, he did house calls, he practiced until he was 80 and I think that everybody feels a little mortality. When you get older you start thinking of your legacy, and more importantly, I think even if you don’t think of your legacy I think you start thinking about is there somebody up there that’s going to maybe not open that door up, if there is such a thing. You start thinking maybe I should live a certain way, and that’s a little different if you do it for those reasons. Not that you’re not adding to humanity and you’re not getting credit for doing good things, but your inspiration is a little different and he did it for 55 years so I would have to assume he did it for other reasons. Before he was thinking about whether or not there was a keeper at the gates up in the sky somewhere that might keep him out, he was doing it for a little longer than that. I just figured, he practiced until he was 80, he did house calls up until the time he was 80, he was charging $2 or $3 for hose calls if he charged you at all, he was giving free medication to people, he was making sure that everybody got the treatment they should get despite of the place they were in life, whether or not they had money or they had no money. He went everywhere. He went into the projects, he went everywhere there was somebody sick and somebody in need and he did it in a very unassuming way.
So I figured, when he died, I said you know I’d like to start something to remember him and remember him in the kind of way that he lived. So we started this Foundation thirteen years ago, The Dr. Atlas Foundation, and the whole idea was bring help to people—not just with muscular dystrophy, not just with cerebral palsy, not just with cancer, but a young single mother who’s trying and has four kids and it’s too much and she’s going to be kicked out of her apartment and put into a shelter. We make sure that doesn’t happen, we come in and we pay the rent. Or if a child is on cancer treatment and the cancer treatment insurance is going to discontinue, it’s not going to keep up the treatment program—we step in and we pick up the insurance and make sure the treatment program does not stop. If a child needs to fly to a different treatment program and the family can’t afford to fly him out of state or out of town, we step in, we pick up those costs, and we also pick up the costs for the hotel and make sure that the family can get there and take care of that. If a ramp needs to be put on the side of house for a invalid child or an adult, whoever it happens to be, we make sure that ramp gets put up there. All these things, and we do them every day of the year.
Our mission statement is to take care of people that sometimes would have kind of fallen through the cracks and had nowhere else to go. We take care of it in a direct manner. We take care of it in a manner where they don’t have to wait three months, they don’t have to beg, they don’t have to plead to get it. We identify it, we validate that it’s real, and we act on it. If there’s a mission statement, the mission statement from the beginning has been don’t make the people lose more than they’ve lost already. Anybody coming to us they’ve lost something, we understand that. Don’t make them lose their dignity. Don’t make them lose their pride. Identify it, be responsible that it’s real, and act on it.
One of the things that stayed with me with my father was, when he died, all the people—the thousands of people that came out—some of the nurses would talk about the kind of man that he was and how he would go into the hospital and he would go into the nursing homes. He was the director for about nine nursing homes and the reason for it was every nursing home needed to have a doctor as a medical director back in those days to stay open, but the doctors wouldn’t do it because they didn’t get paid enough. So he wound up being the medical director of all these nursing homes and the nurses told me that he didn’t have to come to any of these places. He just had to have his name on so they could stay open, but he came every week to see these old people that people had forgotten about to a great extent. Some of them were senile, some of them weren’t, but they were all lonely and he would come there once a week and he would make sure he did his rounds in all nine nursing homes that he was down as the medical director in, and he would take his time and he would go to each room.
I thought that was worth remembering somebody who lived that way.
Also, one of the stories that the patients told me during this wake, they said, “Do you know he would do house calls at all hours and he would come, sometimes at one in the morning, twelve at night, eleven at night, whenever it was—and we couldn’t afford to pay him and he understood that, and he would stay there and have a cup of tea”. One of the patients said, “Do you know why he always had a cup of tea?” I said, “Well he loved tea, I just figured it gave him a little caffeine, it kept him going” and he had a sweet tooth and I said, “I’m sure you gave him a piece of cake”, and they laughed. They said, “He loved cheesecake. We’d give him a piece of cheesecake, we’d give him a cup of tea but do you why?” I said, “Yeah, because he had a sweet tooth and the caffeine would keep him going” and the patients were a lot smarter than me, and that’s not hard to be. They said, “No, the reason he did it was that we were giving something back—so we wouldn’t feel we were getting charity”, and then it made sense. Immediately I understood that as truth. I said, “Yeah, that’s why he did it. You’re right, you’re absolutely right, that’s why he did it” and that’s how we do the Foundation.
Every day of the week we’re getting calls, and I get a little nervous. Can we keep this up? It’s been thirteen years we’ve given five million dollars and what I feel good about it—I wish it was fifty million, I wish it was fifteen million—but it’s five million of pure money. We don’t have any administrative costs. If a family calls and they need a wheelchair, we get them the wheelchair. Whatever it is that has to be done to help that person’s quality of life in that situation, we’re able to act on it and everything goes to the right things. We also have the food pantry that feeds people in the New York area that unfortunately go to bed hungry sometimes with children. To the point that we can help that, our food pantry has been helping that.
We also have programs where we go into schools. We call them the ‘Dr. Atlas Foundation Incentive Programs’. We go into schools where there are kids that aren’t coming from the best backgrounds and they’ve been struggling in the school. We go into the schools and we tell okay, look—you have about two months until the next marking period. The kids that improve their behavior and give up some of that gang stuff outside and that start coming on a regular basis—they don’t have to become A students, but one thing I will not give in on is that their attendance has to be perfect. So if they come to school, if their behavior changes, if their attitude changes and they show this then the teachers will make a list. The ones who get on that list, say maybe the school has 600 students, so I’ll leave 100 tickets and we’ll also get the bus and the only thing we ask the school to do is to provide the chaperones with the teachers to go with the kids. We’ll get 100 tickets for a Mets game, or a Yankees game, or a Knicks game, or a Nets game and it makes a big difference for them. We’ll go to all these different schools so we might give out 1,000 tickets during the course of the year in these kinds of incentive programs.
You’d be shocked how a little thing like letting a kid know that you care about them, a little thing because a lot of these kids have nobody at home letting them know that, nobody. That’s their problem. They’re not bad kids, they get into bad things and for different reasons. Some of them, when you take a moment to understand it, it’s pretty understandable. Just letting them know that somebody cares about how they do—all of a sudden they care about how they do, and when they care about how they do, they do better.
So the Foundation was born for this reason, in this spirit, thirteen years ago. We’re going into our fourteenth year. We depend on one very big dinner always in November the week before Thanksgiving where we get different celebrity guests to come and they’re good enough to make the dinner a big dinner on Staten Island at the Hilton Hotel. That’s our biggest fundraiser and we do other ones now because we need to because the demand, the call for help, seems to get greater almost every day.
We feel good about what the Foundation stands for, what does, and whose name it’s in.
To learn more about The Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Foundation please visit the official website:
For those interested in listening to the Teddy Atlas interview in its entirety, it begins approximately fifteen minutes into the show.
To view a complete list of past guests from On the Ropes Boxing Radio please visit our website:
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Article posted on 25.06.2010
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