Remembering a brilliant and devoted doctor

Bob Wiskind

Recently the Georgia pediatric community was shocked by the sudden death of Dr. Paul Fernhoff. He was a fixture in genetics at Emory, in metro Atlanta and throughout the state.

For more than 30 years, he was the geneticist upon whom so many relied. He was unfailingly kind, courteous and in good spirits. Paul was a true mensch, a role model for all in the way he lived both professionally and personally.

After training in Philadelphia, Paul came to Atlanta to work in Public Health at CDC. (His collaboration with the Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the CDC continued for the remainder of his career.) After he completed his fellowship in Medical Genetics at Emory, he joined the faculty and quickly became an invaluable resource for countless patients, parents and fellow physicians.

He shepherded the development of Georgia’s newborn screening program, which now monitors every baby born in the state for more than 50 genetic disorders. He was medical director for Emory’s Lysosomal Storage Disease (LSD) Center, serving as principal investigator on more than 20 studies examining the effectiveness of enzyme replacement therapy, and other enzyme enhancement therapies, for children and adults with LSDs.

More recently, Paul added the role of medical director of the Atlanta Jewish Gene Screen program, an effort to encourage young Jewish individuals to have carrier screening for 19 serious genetic disorders that are more prevalent in the Ashkenazi Jewish population.

Paul’s own father died at age 47, before Paul was out of his teens. Knowing that he himself had a genetic predisposition to early death, Paul was an enthusiastic practitioner of a healthy lifestyle, eating well, exercising regularly and always striving to maintain his sense of joy and wonder.

At his funeral, Paul’s daughter thanked her father for earning an extra 18 years of life, which allowed him to see his children grown and married and to get to know his granddaughter and share with her his love of nature and enthusiasm for living.

Paul Fernhoff was known for many things: his colorful neckties (designed to help him connect with his young patients and put them at ease); his work ethic (80-hour weeks were common); his availability to parents and fellow physicians; and his passion in caring for children with special health care needs.

He had a keen interest in the ethics of his chosen field due to the potential abuse of genetic technologies and information. Many of his patients had fatal conditions, so Paul also served as medical director of the Pediatric Program at Hospice Atlanta, one of the largest children’s hospice programs in the country.

His true impact can begin to be measured by these quotes from patients, parents and colleagues:

“He was always available when needed. He has been not only a great physician but a good friend.”

“I will miss his pleasantness, respect and kindness in the years to come.”

“Paul was an unfailingly kind man, a superb scholar and a wonderful friend and colleague.”

“He was such a gentle soul, always listening and showing compassion.”

Paul Fernhoff’s legacy will persist for a long time in the countless lives he has touched through his medical practice, and in the example he set by using his time on earth to constantly find meaning, connections, compassion, wonder and joy.