It was a sunny Friday afternoon in August, and although Dr. Nathanael Desire’s office hours at the Shelter Island Medical Center were over, he was still there.
Seated in the waiting room, Dr. Desire was telling me about his life, his work, and how the past three years as one of Shelter Island’s family doctors have strengthened his ties to the community. Suddenly, a very small member of that community appeared at the office door in his mother’s arms. He was having difficulty breathing.
Dr. Desire stopped talking in mid-sentence — my question was “How do you handle a crisis?” — listened carefully as the mother of the coughing child explained the situation, and guided them both to an examining room, saying, “Hey, big fellow. I’m Dr. Desire. How you doing?”
The doctor was in.
Dr. Desire was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he grew up speaking mostly Creole at home, and reading French at school. He was almost 10 years old when his family moved to Brooklyn, where he went to the elementary school around the corner and ran home to watch Spiderman on TV. Today his English is a perfect testament to his ear for language, and the educational value of Spiderman.
His was a large family with two brothers, and four sisters. He attended John Dewey High School, went on to major in finance and investment at Baruch College, and went to work as a banker. But his real love was science, not business and he longed for a more caring profession. He left his job in banking and three weeks later was studying gross anatomy in medical school.
Dr. Desire met his future wife, Anthonette Banks, through his sisters. They were all friends, and the families also knew each other through the Seventh-day Adventist Church, an important institution in their lives.
The couple started dating when Anthonette decided to go to college in Massachusetts at Mount Holyoke. Nathanael was living at home, working at the bank, and began driving to Massachusetts on weekends to see her.
They married in 1996 in a three-week gap between the second and third year of medical school, “a little secret within the medical profession,” Dr. Desire said. “Around the break a lot of us got married.”
In 1998, he received his degree from the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine, Old Westbury, and did his internship in internal medicine and pediatrics at Stony Brook, qualifying him to take patients of any age. He established a private practice in Bellport, and the Desire family still lives in Coram.
In addition to his extensive training in medical school, Dr. Desire has additional training in conducting the specialized immigration physicals required of people applying for a green card. He also does physicals for special commercial licenses, such as truck drivers, firefighters and other physicals with unique requirements.
“Not every physician does it,” he said. “People come to me from around the East End for these physicals.”
When Dr. Desire first came to Shelter Island, he was on his way from his Bellport practice to the San Simeon nursing home in Greenport. “It was winter, and I liked that I could drive from one end to the other and not much was happening,” he said. “So when I saw there was an Island Medical Center, I stopped in and introduced myself to Dr. Kelt.”
Dr. Desire and Dr. Ann (as she prefers to be called) have two children, 8-year-old Natalie, and 4-year-old Nolan. “A delight,” he said. “They are keeping us young.”
Nolan is left-handed in a family of righties, and Dr. Desire admitted that he bought a See-n-Say-style toy for his little southpaw — not realizing that playing with it would require Nolan to execute a move like a cowboy roping a calf to pull a string on the right and make the toy moo like a cow.
Nolan was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Dr. Desire worries when he thinks of what it might mean for his son. “I’m level-headed, and see that he’s making progress, but as a parent it’s never fast enough.
There is tremendous hope, but there is also fear for the future.”
Dr. Desire said he leans heavily on God and prayer in his life. “If I am faced with a crisis, I pray about it, because God is the one who guides me,” he said. “The steadiness helps me a lot.”
Dr. Desire and Dr. Ann have built their practice around the idea that taking the time to talk with patients is good medicine. “Most of our patients appreciate the time we spend with them,” he said. “The insurance company does not value it, but we do.”
Having a conversation with a patient, he said, is the best way to get to know the whole person, and get a sense of who they are and where they are going. “I’ve learned that many of my patients first came to the Island with their parents or their grandparents,” he said. “Now that they are older, they’ve inherited this place.”
Sometimes these conversations take an unexpected turn. Recently, a patient mentioned that his father had worked in banking at Manufacturer’s Hanover, a large company that was taken over by Chase years ago. As they talked, Dr. Desire realized he knew the young man’s father from his banking days, a friend he hadn’t seen in 20 years.
“My dad’s in the waiting room now,” the patient said, and an impromptu reunion ensued.
In contrast to his practice in Bellport, where Dr. Desire saw a fair number of tick bites, but only rarely with Lyme disease, on the Island many more of those with tick bites develop Lyme. Aside from the frequency of tick-born disease, Dr. Desire said the health issues he sees on the Island are similar to what he’s seen throughout his years of practice; lifestyle-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
“The goal is to use as little medicine as possible to get the effect you need,” he said.
Now in their third summer providing medical care on the Island, Dr. Desire said he and his wife are starting to get a feel for the rhythm of the place. This year, they closed their Bellport office, committing themselves to their practice here. Their Island office is open three days a week in the winter and five days a week in the summer.
“The quietness, the tranquility of the Island,” Dr. Desire said. “I really appreciate that.”
The coughing boy who came to Dr. Desire’s office on that Friday afternoon is much better; a crisis averted for now, helped because the doctor was in.