Two facts help explain what makes 39-year-old Paul Barbara tick: He loves and respects no one more than his father Gerard Barbara, a New York City Fire Department chief who died in the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. Second, Barbara, the assistant director of the Division of Emergency Services at Staten Island University Hospital, believes he wouldn’t have made it to or through medical school — starting with that pre-med torture chamber known as organic chemistry — if not for Diane Berger, his science teacher at Staten Island Technical HS. “That pretty much sums me up,” says the married father of three, who graduated from Tech in 1995. “By example, my father — and my strong mother, Joanne — instilled in me ethics, education, hard work, doing the right thing. And Miss Berger taught me how to learn what I thought I’d never understand and how to complete a task.”
I grew up in the West Brighton neighborhood of Staten Island, with my mom, my dad and my big sister, Caren. It was a typical childhood. I was a scout. I played sports, including four years of varsity soccer. I played trumpet in the marching band. I had a paper route even in high school!
All my education was at public schools on Staten Island. In fact, the first private school I went to was medical school and if the state school had taken me, I’d have gone public all the way.
I attended PS 45 and then IS 27. Elementary and middle school are hard to remember, but I did well and I had a good education, one that prepared me to get into Staten Island Technical HS and, believe me, that’s not easy.
In high school, I had to do hard-core science and math, and I had a hard time. My parents always stressed education, but they didn’t have the opportunities of college that my sister and I had. So I would have homework and projects that were tough going, and my parents couldn’t help me with it.
I had Diane Berger for a class where we were competing for a Westinghouse Science Talent Search. The material in her class was a quantum leap for me and I couldn’t seem to get my head around it or complete my work. Here I was planning to become a doctor. How could I do that if I couldn’t get this stuff?
Miss Berger stepped up and helped me regain my confidence. She was diminutive, but tough. I was just 5’4” then myself, so we were both small in stature. She knew I could do the work. She expected me to do the work. She gave me a road map; by that I mean she taught me how to be organized and how to study successfully.
With Miss Berger, it wasn’t so much how or what she did. It was who she was: brutally honest, a no-nonsense drill sergeant. I needed that. I use skills I learned from her every single shift in the emergency room. You’ve got to be organized; you’re the commander who keeps everyone motivated and moving quickly so we can take care of our very ill patients.
On the opposite side, the liberal arts part of high school, I had my other favorite teacher Thomas Bennett, who taught history. He wore short-sleeve button-down shirts and ties, and he was a real cut-up, both sarcastic and personable.
Mr. Bennett made history relevant, and he made history cool. We would study medieval times, for example, and then to teach us the breakdown of power and succession, we’d put on plays where there was a role for everyone. We’d be a lord, a knight, a serf.
I credit him with what became my hobby: a passion for medical history. Unlike organic chemistry, which in a decade of being an emergency room physician I’ve never used, studying and lecturing on medical history make me a better doctor.
It’s important to know what came before, how we treat patients today and how we used to treat patients and their diseases.
It bridges a divide. Like Miss Berger and Mr. Bennett did for me. They bridged two equally important but opposite parts of my education — and my brain.
— As told to reporter Christina Cheakalos