Photography by
Candace diCarlo

Keller’s patients are of many nationalities, and his work with torture survivors takes him all over the world, but he learned his bedside manner and philosophy of compassionate care-giving in middle-class Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, from his father, a dentist deeply loved by his patients. The senior Dr. Keller always put the people in his care first—supported by his wife, who managed the office. He was always available, something his son realized at an early age was an integral part of being a health professional.

At Penn in the late 1970s, Keller took the pre-medical courses required to start his own medical career as well as plunging into the liberal arts. A chance conversation with Chemistry Professor James Davis—during the 1978 College Hall sit-in his freshman year—changed his focus in that direction. But he only minored in chemistry; his major was in European history—“a good liberal arts subject,” he says.

The broad range of civilization at the heart of liberal arts “opened my eyes to the world,” says Keller and, though he didn’t realize it at the time, set the tone for his future work. He particularly recalls a course on “The City,” exploring the political, historical, and social context of urban development that engendered “intense discussions of life with my friends, far into the night,” he says. “And many of these college friends are still close to me now.”

After college, and a brief research stint at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, Keller took a year off to travel, first cross-country to Oregon and Lake Tahoe, California, where he indulged his love of skiing, and then to Europe, hiking through the Pyrenees in Spain and exploring the French countryside in Normandy.

He then enrolled at NYU School of Medicine, expecting to work flat-out and come up for air four years later, medical degree in hand. But after his second year, feeling stressed and burned-out, he knew he had to get away and try to find work overseas. To their great credit, Keller notes, the deans at the medical school recognized his need to broaden his medical horizons and granted him a leave of absence.

This exploration began along the Thai-Cambodian border, where he found a job with an international aid organization, the American Refugee Committee. “It was not easy, especially at first,” he says. “I had no previous experience that would prepare me for those early days in refugee camps. The lives of the Cambodian refugees I met were completely beyond my understanding.”

Keller helped run a laboratory, examining blood smears for malaria and sputum for tuberculosis in a hospital made entirely of bamboo. Beyond the issue of disease, he was stunned by the refugees’ tales of the brutal Cambodian reign of terror and torture, the ghastly civil war and the damage from land mines throughout the region. “My heart opened to these people,” he says. “They literally changed my life.”

The bare-bones bamboo hospital, where he learned physical diagnosis from Cambodian medics, also gave Keller a new view of medicine. Several of the medics, trained by the American Refugee Committee, were “among the most gifted clinicians I’ve ever met,” he says. “They made a major impact on me.” Cases of typhoid fever, malaria, and cholera vied with grotesque land-mine injuries to create a health crisis beyond anything he had ever imagined.

But what Keller took away from the experience most of all was a new awareness of the horrific health consequences of the abuses Cambodians and refugees around the world had endured, and the interrelationship between health and human rights—the first step on his path to a unique medical career of caring for those suffering the effects of human cruelty.

Returning to medical school with a “recharged attitude,” Keller realized his good fortune in being part of the NYU-Bellevue complex. Bellevue, he says, is a “refugee camp with elevators—but it is much more than that. The staff is not only talented, but committed to the blending of health and social justice. On a daily basis, they have an essential social contract with their patients, the vulnerable, homeless, and uninsured.”

Even before Keller helped found the Program for Survivors of Torture, he was working with an immigrant and refugee population, many of whom had experienced torture. “I saw the dedication of the medical staff, their professionalism and sincere caring for the victims who put their lives into our hands.”

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/05/05

FEATURE :
The Rebuilder
By Margot F. Horwitz

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