There’s a story about Robert McDonald that really sums up who he was as a pediatrician in Harrisonburg for decades.
A mother calls him one day in a panic, saying that her son has eaten the goldfish and what should she do? McDonald thought about it and replied, “I think you’re getting a new goldfish.”
McDonald’s daughter, Lee Anne Steffe, remembered that story about her father and said he was like that. The joke put the mother at ease and McDonald was able to calmly explain to her how to handle the situation.
McDonald, of Bridgewater, practiced from 1956 to 1997 with only a few years off during that time. He died on August 17, surrounded by family and nurses who adored him at the age of 95.
“He has had a long good life,” said Steffe. “And he lived it every day to the end.”
McDonald only became the Valley’s second pediatrician in 1956 after completing his residency and internship. He was on call every other night and on weekends.
Because there were generally not many doctors in this area in the 1950s, McDonald also arranged everyday accidents, such as setting bones and closing cuts.
He saw childhood vaccinations nearly eradicate the infectious diseases McDonald once had to treat, Steffe said. If you had kids for decades, chances are they were patients at McDonald’s at some point.
And besides being a caring doctor, McDonald was a people person. He made people feel special and at ease, Steffe said of her father. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, unusual for her to go out into the community and be stopped by someone whose child was being treated by McDonald or who was one of his patients herself.
“They would say, ‘He saved my life,'” Steffe recalls.
McDonald also leaves behind more than a community of healed children. He inspired his family to go into pediatrics as well.
Steffe was a practicing pediatrician, now retired. And her son, Kemper Steffe, has just finished his pediatric residency and is going to practice in Annapolis, Maryland. Three generations of pediatricians were born and inspired by McDonald.
“He was so proud,” Steffe said of his grandson. “Of course I am. But it really was him.”
Kent McDonald, the eldest of three McDonald’s children, remembers the night he and his father went through a severe snowstorm to help a woman who had given birth in hospital. Their car didn’t take them there, but that didn’t stop McDonald. Kent went in part because he knew that when his father was done, they would stop in the cafeteria to get a soda and snack.
But that’s the kind of doctor and person his father was, said Kent McDonald, the kind who walk through a snowstorm to help. It wasn’t until the three daughters of Kent McDonald’s left the house that they realized that doctors don’t really go home. That’s just something their grandfather did.
Kent McDonald likes to say that his father was the “mayor of wherever he was at the time.” Whether it was starting a conversation with the person sitting next to him in the dentist’s waiting room, planning a 15-minute drive to the supermarket to an hour and a half because he wanted to talk to everyone, or these past two years adopting families at Bridgewater Retirement Community during the pandemic.
“He had a personality that was almost immeasurable,” said Kent McDonald. “There are so many stories of people who felt like he intervened. Whether they were a patient of his and would say, ‘You saved my life,’ or they were a parent and would say, ‘You saved my child’s life.’”
While cleaning out Robert McDonald’s room at BRC after he died, the family discovered that his Bible was missing. They asked someone who did maintenance if they had seen it. And although it was eventually found by the family, the employee’s attitude was, “If the doctor’s bible is missing, I’ll turn this place upside down to find it,” said Kent McDonald.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the hospital where McDonald worked, he was mentioned in a lengthy article.
The article says, “Looking back on her husband’s long career, Mary Lee notes how he was always ready to help and encourage children and their sometimes distraught parents, usually with a good dose of humor.”