By Carol Mulligan
A Sudbury physician highly regarded by the medical community and by countless patients whose lives he saved has hung up his stethoscope at 92.
It is difficult to imagine Dr. Istvan Waldmann won’t continue, in some way, his lifelong mission of diagnosing illnesses and conditions that baffle other doctors.
Long-time friend and colleague Dr. Killian de Blacam has consulted with Waldmann for 15 years on cases that perplexed him.
He calls his friend’s medical achievements in Sudbury “enormous”. De Blacam witnessed “countless cures that, without (Waldmann), we would not have been able to achieve. He has made a real difference in (patients’) lives.”
De Blacam credits his friend’s “infectious enthusiasm for the art of medicine” as part of his success in diagnosis.
Waldmann practised evidence-based medicine before the term became fashionable, said de Blacam.
Linda Hellberg, now retired, began her nursing training with Waldmann at Sudbury General Hospital and calls him “a legend in diagnosis.”
Others describe Waldmann as a medical detective, who follow “clues” and doggedly researches them until arriving at a diagnosis.
Waldmann practised medicine for 67 years, largely avoiding the limelight in almost six decades in Sudbury. He was feted last December at a retirement party attended by a handful of people. Hellberg and de Blacam consider themselves fortunate to have been among those gathered to honour their medical mentor and friend.
Waldmann has led an extraordinary life, surviving unimaginable hardships. Born an only child in Budapest, Hungary, in 1926, Waldmann was taken at age 17 by German Nazis to a slave labour camp in Bor, Serbia.
Son Peter Waldmann, a Toronto lawyer, recounts the details of his father’s young life.
As Russian troops were approaching the camp where his father was being held, half the prisoners were loaded onto a train back to Hungary where they were shot. Istvan was on a second train which, on its way to its deadly destination, was stopped by Tito’s “Partisans.” Waldmann and the other prisoners aboard were freed.
Istvan’s father was not as fortunate. Marcell Albert Waldmann was taken to Mathausen concentration camp and died here. Istvan’s mother found refuge in a safe house in Budapest operated by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
A gifted violinist, Istvan was torn between a career in music and one in medicine. He chose the latter, graduating from medical school in Budapest in 1951 and qualifying as a specialist in internal medicine in 1953.
He remained in Budapest until the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. When the revolution occurred, he and his wife, Klara Eva Csillag, left Hungary on foot. Waldmann carried his son, who was three or four years old, in a rucksack on his back, while Klara trudged beside him, months pregnant with their second child.
The family fled to Austria. He applied to be accepted as a refugee in several western democracies, “and it was Canada who accepted me.” The family travelled aboard a Portuguese vessel from Europe to the St. Lawrence Seaway and eventually to Toronto. The couple’s daughter, Eva, was born in Toronto.
Waldmann applied to become an intern resident in Toronto but those positions were already filled. He was offered a job as an orderly at Mount Sinai Hospital and accepted it.
As Waldmann swept and mopped floors at Mount Sinai, Dr. Brent Hazelwood, chief of medical services for Inco in Sudbury, heard about the young Hungarian medical graduate who wanted to start his career in Canada.
Waldmann moved his family to Sudbury where he soon started an internship in internal medicine under the supervision of Dr. Jack Sturtridge at Sudbury General Hospital. He worked there two years, then moved back to Toronto for two years where he was an intern-resident at Sunnybrook Hospital.
De Blacam said it didn’t take long for Sturtridge to recognize “the quick medical mind and easy diagnostic acumen” of Waldmann.
Waldmann had a special interest in cardiology and electrocardiography. In an interview at his Lo-Ellen area home, Waldmann recalled he was the only doctor qualified to interpret ECGs in Sudbury at one time so he read them all.
The former medical director at Sudbury General Hospital was often called upon by doctors for consultations. After examining a patient and poring over medical books, Waldmann would go home and continue his research, literally losing sleep over cases.
Waldmann has earned more than 1,050 credits from the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine for courses over the years, one as recently as last month. The shelves in his office are loaded with copies of tests he took throughout his career.
When Waldmann was chief of medicine in the medical department at Sudbury General Hospital for 15 years, he also worked at MDS Labs reading ECGs. There were few cardiologists and no neurologists in Sudbury at that time, so many patients had to be referred to Toronto. Waldmann and others established an intensive care unit and a coronary unit at Sudbury Memorial Hospital where he taught nurses the lifesaving procedure of defibrillation, as well as how to read ECGs.
Doctors were “absolutely stunned” when a nurse named Susan Beaudry defibrillated a patient in front of them, said Waldmann.
He also operated a practice in downtown Sudbury until 2003 when his wife died. Klara Waldmann worked at the former Sudbury Algoma Hospital treating adults with addictions.
After closing his private practice, Waldmann continued to consult on difficult cases. The elder doctor would be called in to examine and assess patients, and try to determine what was wrong with them.
“And I have made such diagnoses several times,” said Waldmann, understating the significance of his skills.
Waldmann credits his training in internal medicine for his diagnosing acumen because his studies included the fields of cardiology, lung disease, neurology and other branches of medicine.
He consulted with two groups, general practitioners and psychiatrists, who had patients with diseases they could not identify.
“I managed to diagnose them, then treat them and save their lives,” he said.
In one instance, he diagnosed a young man who was desperately ill, extremely weak, vomiting and failing by the day. He determined the young man had Addison’s disease, an uncommon disorder that occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough of certain hormones. The late U.S. President John F. Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease.
Waldmann proudly shows guests a pair of white porcelain doves made and engraved by the young man whose life he saved in 1980.
He later diagnosed a young woman with the same disease who was near death and whom he “restored,” presenting her case to doctors on rounds so they could learn from it.
Gaunt and frail physically, but with a razor-sharp mind, Waldmann will spend retirement playing violin with friends who formed a chamber orchestra and play every week. In his younger days, he played with the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra in the first violin section, mostly notably in the symphony’s annual performances of Handel’s Messiah.
He will continue his passion for finding and collecting art, enjoying his art collection and the dozens of books on art he has amassed, listening and playing the classical music he loves and being visited by friends.
He will still field the occasional question from doctors stymied by the symptoms with which their patients are presenting.