Dr. Altbaum Hangs Up His Stethoscope

Medicine has changed a lot in the 42 years since Dr. Robert Altbaum began practicing.

Physicians know much more. They have better treatments and medications.

On the other hand, it’s much more of a business. Paperwork (on computers) has increased exponentially. There’s less time for each patient.

Another trend — “concierge” medicine — has widened the gap between those who can afford to pay for added access to doctors, and those who can’t.

Dr. Robert Altbaum

Several years ago, Internal Medicine Associates of Westport — where Altbaum has spent his entire career — began talking about a concierge tier. Four partners left, to open a strictly concierge practice

“It would have made life easier, and probably more profitable,” he admits.

“But my patients had been so loyal. I wanted to continue the same way to the end.”

He accepted 100 or so concierge patients. The rest — hundreds — he treated just as he’d always done.

“Emotionally, for me, it was the right decision,” Altbaum says.

This June, one of Westport’s longest-serving physician retires. He’ll hike, snowshoe, play tennis, travel, and enjoy his wife, children and grandchildren. All live nearby.

He’ll join the Y’s Men, and — a “perpetual student” — take courses at local universities.

Yet he won’t leave medicine behind. Altbaum will teach at Norwalk Hospital, and give talks at places like the Westport Library, on subjects like hospice, advance directives, and searching the internet for diagnoses.

Medicine has been a rewarding career for Altbaum. It’s what he always wanted to do.

He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science at 16. After New York University (Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude) and Harvard Medical School, he did a residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

His wife was a Staples High School graduate. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer. To be closer, he spent a year of ambulatory chief residency at Yale New Haven Hospital.

During his mother-in-law’s illness, Altbaum met Paul Beres and Harold Steinberg. They were looking to add an internist to their practice, established by others in the 1950s.

Altbaum joined them in June of 1978. He’s been there nearly 43 years.

“It’s gone by quickly,” the doctor says. “There have been different partners. But it’s the same shingle. The same name.”

Altbaum still works 70 hours a week. Each day, after 8 to 12 hours with patients, he spends 2 to 3 hours updating records on the computer.

He takes his laptop into the examining room too. He regrets having to look down at the screen, rather than always into his patients’ eyes.

But that same technology allows him to retrieve information quickly. It eliminates possible errors in medication. He’s come to embrace it.

Technology has also made his patients — always intelligent — much more aware of their own medical care. “They walk in well prepared with information,” Altbaum says. “That can be good or bad.”

And although he sees each patient less than before — 15 to 20 minutes, rather than 20 to 30 — he never sensed a change. “There’s still a strong bond,” he says. “They’re loyal to their doctor, and their doctor is loyal to them.”

The Internal Medicine Associates staff. Dr. Altbaum is standing, far right.

What kept Altbaum going for over 4 decades? “I really like medicine. I like the science. I like the feeling at the end of the day that I helped people.”

His greatest worry when he began was that internal medicine would be “colds and influenza.” In fact, he says, as his patients have aged — the majority are now older than he is — their issues have grown more complex. That’s a challenge. And in that challenge, strong relationships are forged.

In the weeks since announcing his retirement, Altbaum has been heartened by his patients’ responses. “People say I’ve made a difference in their lives. That’s so rewarding,” he says. “That far outweighs the burden of the hours.

“I’m grateful that I’ve gotten a lot of intellectual and emotional reimbursement from what I’ve done.”

He always planned to retire at 70. Had he left a year ago — before COVID — he says, he probably would have come back.

“This has been very hard on our partners,” he notes. “But from a medical perspective, it’s been a very stimulating time. We learned a lot. We digested a lot of information in a short period of time.”

Much of Altbaum’s life has been focused on medicine. But he has another passion. It’s been on display for years: music.

Not just any music. Rock ‘n’ roll.

Dr. Albtaum (front row, far right) and his band.

As a child, Altbaum took piano lessons. At 13, he and few friends formed a band: The Blue Shades.

“It was 3 months of acne and voice changes. We had no gigs. We were pretty bad,” he recalls.

At 18, he got a gig: accompanying youngsters at Hebrew School. When his own children were part of the Staples elite Orphenians choral group, he played piano for them.

Then, 20 years ago, he and fellow physicians Fred Kaplan, Andrew Parker and Frank Garofalo formed a band.

DNR plays at the Levitt Pavilion. Keyboardist/vocalist Dr. Altbaum is at right. (Photo courtesy of WestportNow)

“It was like a Mickey Rooney movie,” Altbaum says. “We were a garage band. We actually practiced in Frank’s garage.”

Other doctors joined. They got good. They called themselves DNR (medical-ese for “Do Not Resusciate”). Their website claims that former Surgeon General Everett Koop called them “the best multispecialty rock group in Fairfield County.”

Through the years, more doctors have played with DNR. (And one attorney: bassist Fred Ury.)

The current lineup has been together about 15 years. They’ve got a devoted classic rock following. Their Levitt Pavilion show — a fundraiser for Westport’s Volunteer Emergency Medical Service — is always jammed.

COVID canceled last year’s show. But Altbaum is eager to get back on stage.

And he’ll have as much time as he needs to rehearse. (Hat tip: Amy Schafrann)

25 responses to “Dr. Altbaum Hangs Up His Stethoscope

  1. In 1978, 10 years after I returned from the Navy, my doctor of 30 years died. When I asked a friend, who was studying to be a physicians assistant at Yale who he’d recommend, he said, “There’s a new doc in town, Bob Altbaum. All the other docs are going to him. I’d give him a try.” And we did, our entire family, our kids and their kids, and it was the best medical decision we’ve ever made. Without getting all gushy, he’s the doctor’s doc. And our treatment and care has turned into a lifetime friendship. He’s earned every day of his active retirement and has a legion of grateful patients wishing him well. Thanks Bob.

  2. I agree with John that Dr. Altbaum has earned every single minute of his retirement. Dr. Altbaum has been (and the other doctors in his practice too) so dedicated to patients’ health; I am forever grateful for your help and care over the years! Thank you Dr. Altbaum and enjoy the “third age.” No one deserves it more than you! So fortunate that the practice you have built is thriving.

  3. Thank you Dr. Altbaum not only for what you have done for WVEMS, but for the whole community.

  4. I cannot say enough nice things about Dr. Altbaum and wish him a well earned, wonderful retirement. It strikes me that beyond being a superb physician, it was always clear that he cared deeply (even for an occasional patient). Increasingly rare in this health care era, and so essential, his calm kindness and genuine warmth has been greatly appreciated — thank you!

  5. Vanessa Bradford

    Dr. Altbaum has been my physician since Dr. Beres retired. He is a wonderful doctor, diagnostician and musician. Happy to know he will still stay local and we will all be able to enjoy the DNR music gigs.

  6. Dr. Altbaum has been (and still is) both a blessing for his patients and a treasure in our community. Bob, thank you for everything you have done to keep us safe and healthy.

    “Retirement is not the end of the road; it is the beginning of the highway” Good luck, Doc, with your next adventure. . . Ken Bernhard

  7. Roseann Spengler

    The best doctor…..ever. Love you Bob. Will miss you.

  8. Bob is the very best there is, like everyone else who was lucky enough to be his patient, I will miss him.

  9. Bob, this is a big loss for me and for all of Westport. Thanks for everything and good luck with everything you plan to do. See you around town!

  10. Allen Levenson

    Lore has it that people in the area have actually married into families just to be able to become a member of the Country Club of Fairfield…well, I was able to become a patient of Dr. Altbaum when I moved to town in 1989 because my wife’s family were all patients, and I would say that is a way better benefit than some silly links golf course. Quite simply, Bob is the best. In addition to his compassion, technical prowess, innate hunches and ability to diagnose difficult cases, I always loved his responsiveness. The fact that he would take time between every appointment to return phone calls as soon as they came in seems so basic but he is the only doctor I have ever seen practice it. I remember being very concerned when he took on concierge patients years ago, but his level of care and responsiveness didn’t change one iota. Just a remarkable doctor and person.

  11. Jennifer S. Bangser

    Thank you, Bob, for taking such expert, patient and loving care of my mother, Phyllis Shaner, for decades, through trauma and joy. You had a way of making her feel she was your most favorite patient – she was, wasn’t she 😉 ?

  12. Priscilla A. Long

    When we moved to Westport in 1986, I needed a new internist. I asked Nick Polifroni, brother of one of my college roommates, who was the best one in town! Bob Altbaum was his answer, and Nick sure was right. For the last 35 years, Bob has held my hand, as well as my late husband Dan’s, through medical challenges. Bob is the consummate listener, and an amazing diagnostician. As much as I will miss his constant presence, I know that his retirement is well earned. So, dear Dr. Altbaum, enjoy every minute of your well deserved retirement. You will be missed, but never, ever forgotten. Love to you!

  13. June Whittaker

    I will never forget dr Altbaum.I came into his office one day with a kidney stone attack. He said I have to go to hospital I called a friend and they could not take me and so Dr Albaum drove me to Norwalk hospital himself I will never forget this kind act
    This must have been about 30 years ago

  14. I never had the chance to see this doctor because he was not taking new patients for many many years now……that shows how great of a Doctor he is.

    I do have a question though going forward since it was mentioned above:
    he stayed with the Internal Medicine group while the others headed downstairs and opened a purely Concierge practice, correct? Yet, he did take on over 100 Concierge patients if I read that correctly? I was under the impression that a doctor’s office these days is either Concierge or it isn’t, yet he evidently had some sort of hybrid approach? Is that something that is out there or was this truly a unique set-up?
    Can anybody well-informed speak to that?

  15. Having worked with Bob for over 23 years, I can only say he is the most gifted physician I have ever known, His compassion and encyclopedic knowledge are unrivaled. He was a true mentor and Bob I hope you invest as much into your retirement as you did into your career! If so, I am sure you will have an amazing next chapter! With much gratitude, Jill Denowitz MD

  16. I moved to Westport from NYC back in the mid-1980’s. My health had always been good, and for several years I never even bothered to find a local doctor. Then one day I woke up feeling bad with a fever that kept getting worse. Worried that I didn’t have a doctor, I opened the yellow pages – the way you had to do it back then – and dialed up Dr. Altbaum’s clinic simply because it was in my neighborhood. They took me immediately, and I was lucky enough to draw Dr. Altbaum himself.

    What I had was not entirely straight-forward, and even though I was just a walk-in patient, he spent as much time as he had to with me to get to the bottom of what was going on. He figured it out, of course, and I was fine again within a couple of weeks. I was so impressed with his patience and his diligence, that I signed on with him as my primary care physician and have stayed with him ever since. In addition to his extraordinary medical skill, he has a warm, engaging manner that inspires confidence as soon as you walk through his door.

    It was only a few years ago that I learned he also plays in a rock-and-roll band. I heard them play once at the Leavitt and was astonished at how good they were. He seems to be one of those people who excels at everything he does.

    I’m sorry he’s leaving us, but he deserves a happy retirement, and I’m sure like all of his patients, I wish him the very best.

  17. Wendy Goldwyn Batteau

    Always grateful to Bob Altbaum, who deserves all accolades. I will miss his professional care but wish him the best future life full of music and peace in every sense of those words.

  18. How lucky Paul & I have been to be patients of Bob’s for over 40 years. We consider him to be a top notch diagnostician who doesn’t simply “take care of his patients” but truly cares for them. We will miss his prompt response to matters big & small & wish him many joyous years ahead. Fondly, Eva & Paul

  19. Ronnie Aaron-Hammer

    When I moved to Westport in 1980, I was informed about a new doctor in town, Dr. Robert Altbaum, who is extremely bright, very knowledgable, and devote to his patients. Not only did he become my very caring internist but he suggested I have all my four children become his patients as well. He took care of all of us even when they married or moved out of state. Dr. Robert Altbaum has been my doctor from 1980 to date 2021. His devotion to us and his extraordinary medical skills are outstanding. We also all enjoyed his musical talents as well and never missed a Levitt performance. I wish him an
    interesting and fruitful retirement life filled with love and much happiness

  20. Tom Feeley Sr.

    Smartest and most modest person in the room. Incredibly insightful physician with a great sense of humor. From da Bronx and 16 from Bronx High School of Science…WOW‼️
    Kept me going for 33 years😂thanks Bob🙏

  21. I’ve been privileged to have Bob Altbaum as my doctor since I moved back to Westport 33 years ago. He’s a terrific diagnostician and a wonderfully caring physician. I hate to lose him but wish him a happy and well-deserved retirement.

  22. Lucky for me I got to work with Bob for 17 years and appreciated his vast knowledge well before Dr. Google became a go to for information.
    Bob, although our practices parted ways in a formal sense, I will always consider you a mentor, partner and an outstanding physician. I know you will enjoy your well deserved retirement and your patients will surely miss you.
    Thank you for everything!
    Nina Karol

  23. Writing on behalf of the Utz family and Greenwald family… thank you Dr. A for EVERYTHING. You’re the best.

  24. This summer I had an (ultimately minor) medical emergency and, because my usual physician was unavailable, I was given an immediate appointment with Dr. Altbaum.

    I can quite simply say that it was the best appointment that I have ever had with a doctor in my five-plus decades on this earth. It wasn’t just that he was observing my symptoms but that he was listening to me describe things and taking seriously what I had to say. I immediately understood why he was considered such great diagnostician.

    Dare I suggest that the reason why so many men avoid the doctor until they are really sick is that they don’t feel listened to, but rather like one of many on the conveyor belt of people requiring a quick look-over and an immediate diagnosis and discharge.

    Although it was only one appointment, I say thank you and wish you only the best.

  25. I am so grateful for all the care and advise Dr. Altbaum has provide me, and later my parents, over the past 40 years. I will never forget the time I was helping man a booth, run by my husbands softball team, down at The Italien Festival and out of nowhere I heard someone say “ Hi Joyce”. There was Dr. Altbaum giving me a wave. He had come down to the festival, with his family. I can’t tell you how many times i would tell people that story. I was always really touched, that he recognized me and said hello. His patients were far more than numbers. He truly cared for all of us.

    I wish him all the best on this new adventure. He will be greatly missed, but hopefully we will all get to see him rockin’ & rollin’ up on that stage. Take good care and Thank You

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