Dr. John Rich well remembers when he first met Larry Ronan. Ronan was a student at Harvard Medical School, and Rich was a few years ahead of him.
"There was this buzz about a medical student that everyone thought was really special, even before he was an intern," Rich recalled yesterday. "He came with a sense that he was really centered, unusually compassionate, and also very talented."
More than two decades haven't altered Rich's first impression of Ronan. "His whole pedigree shows that he's very accomplished and skilled," said Rich, who is now a professor at Drexel University's School of Public Health. "But those aren't the things that really distinguish a doctor. It's the humanity you bring to your practice. I was thrilled, but not surprised, when I saw on CNN that Larry is Senator Kennedy's doctor."
Senator Edward M. Kennedy's doctor: That distinction has taken on added meaning in the past week. The senator's brain cancer has thrust a very private doctor onto the front pages, quoted in a string of statements about the health of his most famous patient. Other than those releases, Ronan has said nothing publicly about Kennedy's condition. Beyond the Kennedy family's obvious desire for privacy, reticence comes naturally to Ronan, even in a situation in which many doctors would struggle to suppress the urge to appear before television cameras.
Just the range of his Ronan's activities is striking. He sees hundreds of patients at Mass. General, where he has spent his entire career. He is a team doctor for the Boston Red Sox. He is the guiding force of the Thomas S. Durant Fellowship for Refugee Medicine, which sends doctors and nurses to underserved and often dangerous countries, like the Sudan. A few weeks ago, he helped organize a brunch that raised $11,000 for a food pantry in Dorchester. The list goes on.
Hearing that he treats Kennedy might feed some notion that Ronan is some kind of doctor to bigshots. That would be an incorrect impression. A couple of days ago, I got a call from one of his patients who has been under the weather for a few weeks. You wouldn't know her name, and her illness isn't anything life-threatening. She was shocked Wednesday when Ronan's nurse called to make an appointment. "With everything he has going on, I was amazed that he was still thinking about me," she said.
Ronan's relationship with Kennedy goes beyond treating him. At Kennedy's behest, Ronan traveled to Iraq a few years ago to rescue a 12 year-old boy named Rakan Hassan, who had been grievously wounded in an attack that took the lives of his parents. The effort to restore the boy to health was chronicled in a memorable Globe series by Kevin Cullen, "Rakan's War."
The bond between Ronan and Kennedy makes sense when one considers that two of the doctor's great professional influences have been Robert Coles, the great liberal psychiatrist, and Dr. Thomas Durant, the physician and humanitarian who was the conscience of Mass. General for years. Ronan and Kennedy are drawn to the same kinds of causes.
As it happens, Ronan is both my friend and my physician. That connection didn't help when I e-mailed this week to say I was writing about him, suggesting we sit down together. I got a terse response, quoted here in its entirety: "Nope (thanks)."
Others were somewhat more forthcoming. "I will say that he is someone who avoids any kind of recognition or acknowledgement," said James T. Brett, president of the New England Council and a close friend. "He is the most unassuming person I've ever met. He looks for nothing and wants nothing."
The senator's prognosis is said to be uncertain, which may be a polite word for grim. No doubt, the best medical team imaginable is being assembled to treat him, with Ronan at the helm. One of the most remarkable people in Massachusetts will stop at nothing to save another of the most remarkable people in Massachusetts. The senator couldn't be in better hands.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.