Hanging up the stethoscope: Front Royal pediatrician retires

Kaelyn Burton and Leelan Pingley are shown with Front Royal pediatrician Dr. Richard A. Christoph prior to his retirement. Courtesy photo by Jacqueline N. Thomas

After serving 22 years as a successful teacher, doctor, emergency room attendant, award-winning administrator and mentor, Dr. Richard A. Christoph had become director of the Pediatric Emergency Department at the University of Virginia.

But in 1998, at age 47, he yearned to leave and be a hands-on practitioner in a rural community with no local pediatric doctor.

The only practicing pediatrician for Front Royal at the time was Dr. Gisela Dengel and she had become ill. She had often consulted with Christoph about her patients.

So Christoph left UVA and opened his Front Royal office in 1999, handling 600-800 patient visitations a month until Christoph, at age 65, retired this summer.

“I don’t know what we are going to do without him,” said Betty Boyd, 47, of Front Royal who took her children to Dr. Christoph for 15 years.

“He was a great doctor and always will be,” said Boyd. “I understand why he retired, (but) we all miss him.”

Boyd and many other families who went to him for years now see Dr. Deborah E. Dunn, whom Christoph recruited to Front Royal Pediatrics, 2005 at 315 W. 10th St., now operating as Valley Health Pediatrics.

From his nurse to his patients, a litany of praise describes Christoph’s dedication and impact.

“He would see 40 to 45 patients a day, and if someone’s child was sick, we would fit them in,” said Jacki Thomas, his nurse for nine years. “He would stay to 6:30 or 7 at night until they all were seen and if they had to wait, they didn’t complain.”

One reason was “The time he took to know his patients and to talk to them,” Boyd said. “He loved them.”

Christoph’s medical journey started in Clarksville, Tennessee, when his best friend in high school contracted acute myeloid leukemia.

“We were successful students and both nerds in 1968,” he recalled. “He and I played chess and he always beat me until February of my senior year, I started beating him. At that time I thought I was becoming a better player.”

Not so.

“He was already sick but not telling anyone. He went to St. Jude Hospital and received the best care they had to offer. He graduated from high school in mid-May to a standing ovation from the entire school (of more than 2,000 students),” Christoph said.

“Two weeks later he died. I decided then I wanted to go into medicine and thought I wanted to be a cancer specialist,” said Christoph.

He sped through the University of Tennessee medical school and Austin Peay State University Medical School.

He worked at a clinic affiliated with St. Jude Hospital in Memphis, and was mentored by Al Malur, the general director at St. Jude who helped develop the vision for the hospital with actor Danny Thomas.

“I picked pediatrics because of my desire to help children,” he said.

“(Malur) taught me about the sanctity of life,” said Christoph. “He taught me the humanity of taking care of children who are going to die.”

“Being professional doesn’t mean being aloof, but you have to protect yourself from being overcome with grief, becoming cynical,” he noted.

Christoph’s journey continued with an emergency and pediatric medicine three-year course completed in two years at John Hopkins University. He then left for the University of Virginia.

In the next 14 years he earned numerous awards at UVA, eventually becoming director of Emergency Pediatrics.

He was invited to medical conferences, did original research and published professional articles, developed training materials on pre-hospital care and trained hundreds of rescue squad and search and rescue volunteers.

“He was a pediatric genius in my book,” said nurse Thomas. “He was such a great teacher and he didn’t even know it. I realized early on what he brought to Front Royal was a whole other level above what I had seen before.”

“We had a lot a lot of cases that were heartbreaking,” she added. “He dealt with it very well. He would call families, send cards and flowers, attend funerals. He was always the calm one, reassuring when everyone else was falling apart or freaking out.”

Christoph said that sometimes you just need to listen and be compassionate because you feel compassion. “There is no shame in sharing that with them. Sometimes you just have to be there to hold them, say a few words that might be comforting.”

He believes “part of the profession is to be fair and honestly share their feelings but protect yourself and your family from those feelings.You need to protect you own soul from being overwhelmed,” he said.

But in caring for hundreds of thousands of patients, there is psychological impact.

“I’m haunted every night,” Christoph said.

He remembers an 11-year-old girl with hyper-thyroidism, which caused her heart muscle to deteriorate.

“She and I became good friends,” he remembers during six months of treatment before she arrived at the pediatric unit with terminal heart failure.

“Her heart was bigger than it should be,” Christoph said, and when it stopped beating, only chest compressions would bring her back to consciousness.

“She would wake up with tears in her eyes and open her mouth and say, ‘Don’t let me die.’ This went on for hours.”

“After awhile she stopped talking to me and would just look at me when she awoke during chest compressions,” he said, adding it wasn’t like TV because she didn’t recover.

Another indelible memory is of an 8-year-old boy who had cancer and was treated for it weekly.

“He was always brave,” he said. “He would go into remission and then relapse.”

Finally, the treatment was stopped and he was kept in the cancer unit to spend his last days.

When the boy first became sick, his mother had given him a teddy bear named Boffo for comfort.

“He was lying in bed so sick he could hardly talk, the mother lying on one side of him, me on the other, Christoph said. “He asked me to take care of Boffo, the teddy bear.”

Christoph has kept the bear as a poignant reminder.

Chris Lee’s two teenage sons have been lifelong patients of Dr. Christoph.

“He was the kind of doctor who went above the call time and again,” said Lee, 56, of Lake Frederick. “Everybody thought he treated everyone’s son as a prince. He gave everybody 100 percent attention.”

“He was like a family friend,” Lee added. “He helped with their nutrition, I would slip him a note and he would mention it to my kids, and it was more important coming from a doctor. He helped us reinforce those things.”

Lee even wrote a good-bye poem to Christoph, ending by saying “It’s men you helped us groom.”

What will Christoph do being retired?

“I am not a person who is likely to be bored,” he said. “I won’t do any consulting. I want to learn foreign languages, take piano, be more effective with landscaping and gardening and spend more time with my children.”