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Family physicians: Fathers, sons see big upside to practicing together

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Staring at the cartoon-like mural of wild animals inside Watertown Pediatrics, one feels a bit like a lost soul inside Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”

As in that collection, where stories are told through the eyes of animals, the painted zebra at the medical practice at 1571 Washington St. could tell tales of sickness, health and family bonds.

Perhaps one tale would be how Drs. Alfred L. and Joseph C. Gianfagna — a father-son physician team that comprises half of the group’s pediatricians — stopped briefly in the sick and wellness waiting areas to greet parents of the practice’s tiniest patients. Another story could be about the duo joking with a Watertown Daily Times photographer to ensure he shoots their “good side.”

The fun, youthful environment portrayed in the mural and in the Gianfagnas’ camaraderie also is met with a passion for health care and working alongside a best friend who can offer valuable medical advice.

A similar scenario played out in the same building — one floor up — during the 15 years that Drs. David O. and D. Peter Van Eenenaam worked together at the North Country Orthopaedic Group.

The Van Eenenaams and Gianfagnas are two of a handful of generations of physicians who have practiced medicine together in Jefferson County over the years.



‘THEY CARE ABOUT YOU’

For the Gianfagnas, being family — and treating families — comes with rewards. Alfred said it’s “special” to see children of the parents he treated as kids a few decades ago.

“They’re coming back to see us, and that means they care about you as a doctor,” said Alfred, 62.

Watching how his father connected with and cared for his patients was one reason why Dr. Joseph Gianfagna, 31, said he returned to the north country after completing his pediatric residency at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse last year.

“It was clear my dad enjoyed doing what he did,” the younger Gianfagna said. “It makes it easy going to work every day. It was just a slam dunk to work with dad in his office.”

The pair have consulted and guided one another in the five months Joseph has been on the staff at Watertown Pediatrics. The younger Gianfagna said he has benefited from his father’s experience, and Alfred said his son has shared information on medical technology and updated procedures.

“We try to see eye-to-eye as much as possible,” the younger Gianfagna said. “We have 30 years’ difference in training. (Dad and colleagues) help me when I see something I haven’t seen before. There’s also always an element of a father-son relationship that adds comfort to our work relationship.”

His father said: “Any time you add a new person, you need to respect their knowledge, experience and style. When you bring a new doctor into a practice, you don’t know what you’re getting, but with Joe we knew.”

What Watertown Pediatrics got was a doctor who works well with the practice’s other partners, Dr. Khalil Kardooni and Dr. Myla D. Estepa, plus the nurses and office staff members who help care for nearly 5,000 patients.

The group also has experienced Joseph’s humor, and he recently joked with his father about being the young, dapper Dr. Gianfagna.

As father and son continue to enjoy each other’s company amid their patients and co-workers, the younger Gianfagna said he already has begun to see the magic of family within the pediatric practice. Not only does he work with his dad, he treats children whose parents were like family to him growing up. And his wife, Rachael, is a registered dietitian who works with local families.

Dr. Alfred Gianfagna and his wife, Jean, have five other grown children; none is a physician.



‘REWARDING EXPERIENCE’

Like the Gianfagnas, the Van Eenenaams are family men.

Drs. David and Peter Van Eenenaam, along with their families, take an annual vacation to Sarasota, Fla., and the two share a love of downhill skiing, the outdoors, and direct patient care.

David, 78, and Peter, 52, have helped patients with simple fractures, spinal surgeries and hip replacements, among other injuries. They also often scheduled cases together from 1996 — when Peter joined the North Country Orthopaedic Group after receiving fellowship training in sports medicine and joint replacements — until 2011, when David retired.

“It was enjoyable, fun and a rewarding experience,” Peter said of the time spent practicing alongside his father. “Certainly I benefited from his 40 years of seeing things. It was a good fit for me to come here. My dad was here, and it was an established practice.”

As the Van Eenenaams sat in a conference room within the practice, Peter used his tablet to show his father an X-ray of what David said was a “beautiful job” of repairing a patient’s hand.

Compliments, consultations and improved techniques were all things the Van Eenenaams said they shared when they practiced together and alongside the group’s other orthopedic surgeons. Explanations or new ideas were explored with the help of a skeleton used for training in the conference room. The lanky teaching tool is still used today.

Dr. David Van Eenenaam began his career as an orthopedic surgeon in 1968 after serving in the Navy Reserves for two years. He said he chose orthopedics because “it’s taking care of folks from all age groups; it’s basically taking care of people who are generally healthy who have mishaps.”

Perhaps the biggest learning curve throughout his career, David said, was the implementation of electronic medical records. For Peter, the most significant change in his 18-year career thus far has been an increase of “outside burdens.” More paperwork has taken away from direct patient care, he said.

While his career path ended up like his father’s, Peter said that wasn’t his initial intent. David said he always knew he’d practice medicine, but his son said he wasn’t certain about his career choice at first, although he was interested in biology and chemistry.

A career in medicine also could be the case for Peter’s daughter, Sarah G. Van Eenenaam, a sophomore who is studying biology at SUNY Geneseo. Peter and his wife, Dacia L., also have a son, David P. Jr., a Watertown High School junior who hasn’t expressed an interest in medicine.

“Certainly, my father’s influence in orthopedics influenced me,” Peter said.

As with the relationship between the Gianfagnas, Peter Van Eenenaam said he and his father shared laughs and occasionally traded jabs during their careers together.

“At the end, he called me for every (case). He wanted me to do all the work,” Peter said, chuckling.

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