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Michael Dohan, 70, secretly cared for Jews in Moscow


Two decades ago, Dr. Michael Dohan secretly cared for fellow Jews in Moscow, smuggling medicines, clothing, and equipment for refuseniks who were marginalized for seeking visas to Israel.

In the apartment of a Moscow family, the cardiologist held a secret clinic during several visits in 1985 and later lobbied for the clinic's hosts, Yuri and Natasha Chernyak, to win permission to immigrate to Boston. They arrived in 1989 and initially lived with Dr. Dohan's family in Lexington.

"He was a very generous man," said Natasha Chernyak . "He was like a renaissance man. He had so many interests in life."

Dr. Dohan, who was chairman of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and battled leukemia for 15 years, died Wednesday at Brigham and Women's Hospital. He was 70.

The plight of the refuseniks inspired Dr. Dohan to initiate efforts at Temple Isaiah in Lexington to bring more families to America. Action for Soviet Jewry, on whose board he served, honored him for this work in 1990.

In a memoir he wrote for his grandchildren, Dr. Dohan said, "Many of our friends thought we did something special, but they never realized how special it was for us."

Once a KGB agent questioned Dr. Dohan about the full backpack he always carried. He protected his secret stash of supplies by telling the agent that his wife was very sensitive to weather changes and needed lots of clothing, he wrote in his memoir.

During his leadership of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, the organization's affiliate, International Physicians for Social Responsibility, received the Nobel Peace Prize.

"He never wanted to be just a doctor. It was important to him to have many interests," said his wife, Mimi, who accompanied him to Moscow.

His friendship with his first refuseniks endured. He and Yuri Chernyak collected wines together until Chernyak 's recent death, and he helped his widow. "If I needed some answers, I call Mike," Natasha Chernyak said.

Dr. Dohan, whose office was in Burlington for many years, immersed himself in whatever he chose to do. He ran the Boston Marathon four times, collected modern paintings, loved sailing, and tackled the art of making the perfect cup of espresso .

Born in Baltimore, Dr. Dohan grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Millburn High School in Millburn, N.J. He graduated from Harvard College in 1958 and Tufts Medical School in 1962.

He met his wife when he was a sophomore at Harvard and she was a freshman at Wellesley College. He was organizing a team of student volunteers at Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, where she was doing volunteer work.

"My husband always had a strong commitment to helping people," she said. They were married 49 years and had three sons.

Dr. Dohan served on the staffs of Choate and Winchester hospitals. He was a member of the American College of Cardiology and published in Modern Concepts of Cardiovascular Disease.

At age 63, he wrote in the Annals of Internal Medicine about enduring chemotherapy and a transplant of his bone marrow as a doctor-turned-patient. The New York Times adapted the piece in a column that ran in 2000.

In the article, Dr. Dohan revealed his deep feelings of terror upon giving up control and entrusting his doctors "to kill me, and then bring me back to life."

"My time in the hospital disrupted that sense of control so completely that even now, more than a year later, some emotional fragility remains," he wrote.

His son David of Lexington, an internist who worked with his father, said his father emphasized a "patient-centric approach." "That's the thing he taught me: Listen to your patients. They often know," he said.

David Dohan , who accompanied his father to Moscow as a teenager, recalled his father once saved their official Russian guide from choking. His father performed the Heimlich maneuver on the man, who returned to his dinner as if nothing had happened and offered no thanks, according to the son.

Dr. Dohan also was a loving grandfather who enjoyed teaching his grandchildren about life. His grandchildren would join him in the kitchen to prepare horseradish for the Passover Seder each year. They all were photographed a few years ago wearing goggles to cope with the ground roots' stinging fumes. "It's one of my favorite pictures," said his son Marc of Arlington.

At a service for Dr. Dohan on Friday at Temple Isaiah, his 11-year-old granddaughter Anna Magill-Dohan spoke about the best gift her grandfather gave her -- his old stethoscope.

"She has this vision: She would love to be a cardiologist, too," said her father, Marc.

In addition to his wife and sons Marc and David, he leaves another son, Daniel of San Francisco; a brother, Dr. J. Lawrence; and six grandchildren.

Burial was at Westview Cemetery in Lexington.