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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Doctor to foreign community moves with times

Dr. Fred Shane is a familiar figure in his community. Something to do with his pink hat, perhaps? "I've always sported colorful head gear," he chuckles, peering over his doctor's desk in a brand new clinic in Minato Ward, Tokyo. "This one my daughter bought for me. Before that, I had a red hat — I think my son Peter gave me that one. Also I remember green, and another pink one."

Dr. Fred Shane and son Peter
Dr. Fred Shane (seated), who has tended to both the Japanese and foreign community here since 1950, has now hooked up to practice with doctor son Peter (standing).

Though in some respects a shy and intensely private man, Shane (Dr. Fred) is quite the fashionista. His tie is patterned with the First Thanksgiving of 1621, showing English colonialists and native Americans sitting down and dining together. The hat has a more practical purpose: "My dermatologist recommended I cover up. Being very fair, it protects my head from the sun."

Born in Houston, Texas, nearly eight decades ago, Dr. Fred decided at an early age that he wanted to be a doctor. He never swayed from that decision. It's a bit of a mystery, he admits, since there was no history of medical vocation in the family. "My father was a traveling salesman!"

These days, he observes, doctors tend to specialize. In his day, GPs (general practitioners) were the norm. "Newly graduated doctors were sent into the countryside for two years to find their feet, practicing in rural communities. Instead, I was called up for service as an army doctor in the Korean War."

The first time he came to Japan was in 1950 for R&R. Later, he found himself deployed to Oita Prefecture to take care of airborne paratroops. "I can't remember which battalion. It's all so long ago now."

When the war cooled down, he was honorably discharged from active service, but never went home. "It was all too interesting here. Life was tough, being postwar, but I liked it. I still like it."

He stayed in the countryside, became fluent and obtained a Japanese license to practice medicine. There are several certified non-Japanese doctors now, but not back then.

In 1954, Dr. Fred moved to Kobe. He was to stay there 36 years, moving to Tokyo in 1990. "Why? Progress."

As a major port, Kobe once hosted a large foreign community. There were consulates, foreign banks — a very lively cosmopolitan place. "Now there is one consulate and no banks!"

While the Tokyo Olympics of '64 boosted Japan's image internationally, there were detrimental effects later on the domestic shipping industry, with costs of labor rising and automation affecting jobs.

Fewer mariners came ashore for R&R, affecting the atmosphere and local businesses.

Dr. Fred's decision to leave was not taken lightly. "I'd accepted Japanese patients with hoken (national medical insurance) for 10 years to try and boost business, but things became just too lean."

He enjoyed working with Dr. Aksenoff in the International Clinic in Roppongi and stayed there for 11 years. In 2001, he restructured for a small clinic, while waiting for his son Peter to gain the necessary qualifications to join him.

A few weeks ago, father and son opened a new clinic in Shiba. On the ninth floor, and with a fine view of Tokyo Tower, it still smells of fresh paint and new leather. Gifts of orchids from well-wishers — patients past and present — decorate every surface.

There are photographs in Dr. Fred's office. "My grandson, and another baby on the way. It's nice to be a grandfather. I'm surprised."

His assistant, Kazue Takahashi, pops her head around the door to say hello. She has been with him for 44 years.

Peter Shane, M.D. — graduated in 1997 from the University of Texas and specializing in rheumatology — arrives to shake hands. His mother, who is clinic manager, is busy in the background, along with two other assistants.

Right now, Peter is applying for the Japanese license exam — mostly a matter of language — to be taken early next year. In the meantime, being unable to prescribe until licensed, he spends 50 per cent of his time assisting a friend, Dr. Kazumasu Tanaka, in the suite next door to Dr. Fred.

"The rest of the time I'm traveling around Japan, lecturing on new rheumatology medications and novel treatments in the States. Approval of medications is slow in Japan, so there's a great interest and, of course, an even greater need."

His father, who lives in Meguro, acknowledges that it's hard to keep abreast of medical literature and developments. An avid reader (especially of nonfiction), Dr. Fred does his best but says he basically needs more time.

As to keeping his fingers properly on the pulse, he does a 25-hour refresher course by correspondence once a year through the Boston University. Papers are marked and graded there, to be returned with a certificate. "I also do a similar annual brushup with Japan Medical Society."

A huge part of his work is concerned with listening, he says. "I should have been a psychiatrist, and maybe if I did my time again, this is where I might have specialized."

He has no regrets however. "It's great to be able to rise to the challenge. I've delivered a baby on a merchant ship. And not so long ago, I was flying to the States when I heard the classic inquiry, Is there a doctor on board? A Japanese man had inadvertently taken an extra dose of his blood pressure medicine. I lay down beside him in the aisle, observed, and by the time we landed he was OK."

While he still has his American medical license, Dr. Fred has no plans to use it, in Houston or anywhere else in the States for that matter. "I visit but I won't be going back. I wouldn't fit in anymore."

The plan is to phase himself out of the new practice slowly. Dr. Fred looks forward to working part-time, but not sitting down all day doing nothing. "That wouldn't work."

Describing himself as "always lousy with a ball," he's never been athletic. But he has enjoyed the recreational activities of huntin', shootin' and fishin'. "I don't go after anything too large or dangerous," he twinkles, "just birds and deer." Now, however, he is "handicapped — a narrowing of the spinal canal" and moves with difficulty. "I guess I'm stuck with fishing."

Some have wondered what his middle initial stands for. "Isaac," he replies. "But he was more loquacious than me."

Shane Clinic, Yoda Building 9F, 3-15-13 Shiba, Minato-ku. Phone (03) 5439 -9583; fax (03) 5439-9584. P.S. Since we met, Peter Shane became a father again, and Dr. Fred has a second grandson. The dynasty continues.

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