PITTSBURGH — “Call anytime,” he said, hours before he went into hospice.
If only I could. If only the scores — hundreds, probably thousands — of friends of one of the most extraordinary figures in modern orthopedic medicine could call him anytime, or even once more.
But Freddie Fu, the longtime chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine and UPMC and a global giant in the medical world, died last week at age 70.
We no longer will be able to call a man who always was on call — for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pitt Panthers and Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, all of which he served as orthopod, as he did for luminaries from the Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic and baseball MVP Andrew McCutchen to the NFL’s Tony Siragusa and Curtis Martin.
Born Ho Keung F. Fu in Hong Kong, Freddie was an American by choice, not by birth. George M. Cohan, whose songs he knew, would have regarded him as a real live nephew of his Uncle Sam. And in truth, no one was more alive than Freddie. He biked at 20 mph, skied at 25 mph and spoke at 65 mph. He was always on the way to someplace else — Hawaii or New Hampshire, Hong Kong or home to Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze — but if you were his friend, he was always there.
Always there. Fracture your hand? Freddie would be on your porch at 6:30 in the morning. (“I was up anyway,” he would say.) Hurt your ankle in Ontario? He would dispatch the team doctor of the Toronto Raptors, a onetime Fu trainee, to the case. Suffer a severe back injury in Quebec? Freddie would be on the phone to the Montreal Canadiens doctor, another onetime Fu resident. He had proteges everywhere, and he seemed to be everywhere — but always, right there when you needed him.
But it wasn’t only a case of his patients and friends needing him. He needed to help; there was some mysterious corpuscle in Freddie’s blood that made him do it. It was the Freddie way. He couldn’t help himself.
“I want to be remembered for helping people,” he said in one of those last calls.
I’m not alone on the receiving end of that help, or on the telephone receiver when bones cracked or muscles ached or arthritis crept. All his patients — names easily recognized in Pittsburgh, names hardly known — will tell you that. All had Freddie on speed dial, knowing that when he was on the line, his answer would be high-speed. He was, to be sure, nearly incomprehensible in two languages — his wife will swiftly affirm that, for his tongue moved at Mach One speed — but he spoke the language of care and friendship and, in fact, love, a word he used in one of our last calls.
“I want to thank everybody,” he said. “I love you.”
Freddie meant that “you” in second-person plural.
That conversation occurred after Freddie did something theretofore not in the Fu portfolio. He gave up.
He was felled by a melanoma in his nose and then by bleeding in his kidney, and after a while the transfusions were doing no good. He ordered them stopped.
“I wish I could be here longer, but our time is limited,” he said, and I can’t remember a more poignant — a more searing — sentence, except perhaps the three that would follow: “This is my choice. I could have more transfusions but it would be wasteful. I will go away quietly.”
Freddie and I were at Dartmouth College together, blurs in our collegiate memories. But when I was appointed executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dr. Fu was there on my first day to take me to dinner in a new hometown where I knew no one (Chinese food, of course, consumed at supersonic speed). Freddie had followed his brother, Frank, to Dartmouth, but his father, Foo Ying, wasn’t enthusiastic about the notion, relenting only after extracting a promise that Freddie would not play beer pong, the principal distraction on what was then a remote all-male redoubt of high spirits and Miller High Life. He became the campus ping-pong champion instead.
There began a lifetime loyalty. In time, four Fus would go to the New Hampshire college, and Freddie would own an apartment there, next door to the man who was the dean of the college in his time as an undergraduate. Freddie would be the only other person in Pittsburgh, besides our friend Shoun Kerbaugh, a onetime Dartmouth quarterback coach, who could provide quarter-by-quarter reports of the Dartmouth-Cornell game in real time. His office at the Freddie Fu Sports Medicine Center was stuffed with Dartmouth memorabilia, and Freddie’s car bore an oval sticker with a D on it. It did not stand for Deutschland.
He instructed his residents in the life-altering double-bundle concept of knee surgery he pioneered, but his instructions moved into the life-changing advice he gave his proteges.
When Pauyo Thiery debated whether to stay in Pittsburgh or return to Montreal, Dr. Fu provided sound counsel: “Freddie told me: ‘Go where your heart is, and you’ll succeed,’” remembered Dr. Thiery, known in Montreal for having performed arthroscopic knee surgery on Jesperi Kotkaniemi, then a rising Canadiens star. The other evening, Dr. Paul Marks, the Raptors’ medical director, spent 55 often-tearful minutes on the phone describing the impact — “incalculable,” he told me — that Freddie had on his life.
The tributes to Dr. Fu flowed in when it became known, in terrible bits and awful pieces, that he was slipping away. His residents remembered ski outings and holiday parties, Chinese New Year feasts, and emails with photographs set to the sort of 1960s pop tunes his eventual wife, Hilda Pang Fu, sang in a swanky all-girls chorus in Hong Kong.
One came from Jung Mi Haisman, a hand surgeon in Cape Cod who had been wooed for a residency at the Harvard medical complex but who opted to work with Dr. Fu instead. “You demanded the best from everyone, the same standard to which you held yourself,” she told him. “You never stopped with critical thinking, cutting-edge research and exemplary teaching. Your prolific contributions to the world of orthopedics will never be forgotten.”
Unforgettable. That’s who he was.
“Call anytime,” he said. If only I could.