By Danielle Lipiec
People cycle in and out of Fire Island every single day, whether it be summer or off-season, and rain or shine. Out of all those who come and go, Dr. Robert Furey – more commonly known as Dr. Bob – is one who has been in it for the long haul.
As Saltaire’s primary care physician for 43 years, Furey has maintained loyalty both to the people of the island, and the island itself. As the 2019 summer season winds down, residents of Saltaire have begun preparing themselves to say goodbye to a beloved member of their community.
Furey began his tenure on Fire Island in 1976, when he was employed with out of Roosevelt Hospital in New York City as a surgeon. The hospital gave doctors like Furey the opportunity to work on location at different communities on Fire Island – Roosevelt Hospital’s program was specific to Saltaire.
“There used to be a sign-up sheet at the hospitals,” Furey said. “We were only making $5,000 a year in those days, so it was a chance for doctors to get away and also a way to supply doctors to these communities.”
When Roosevelt Hospital eventually closed, Saltaire reached out to doctors like Furey who had worked there before, and asked them to return as free agents.
“A week became a month, and a month became the whole summer,” he said.
Furey has been a loyal servant to Saltaire for 43 years without a death or malpractice suit, which he commends himself for. He retired from his job as a surgeon five years ago, but has continued his work as the Saltaire Village doctor.
He sees both children and adults for a variety of ailments. In the past, he says he most frequently saw splinters. However now that the new boardwalk is in place, he doesn’t see them as often. Now, for the most part, he tends to orthopedic injuries, dermatology cases and ear infections.
Although Furey works with the dedication and passion that any good doctor would, he goes above and beyond to make medical experiences more personal for Saltaire residents.
“I’m here 24/7 and I make house calls on a bicycle. The advantage I have is that I know everyone in town and they know me, so it’s a personal service,” he said. Following the end of this season, Furey will leave the island with a heavy heart. A decision made by the Saltaire Board of Trustees has put a Northwell Health Clinic in place as the community’s primary healthcare provider beginning next year, removing Furey from the position.
All Saltaire Board of Trustee meetings this season have involved a lengthy discussion of the topic, with citizens speaking up and showing support for Furey, as well as uncertainty about the new clinic. The Saltaire Village Trustees however have given their reasons for deciding to contract with Northwell Health Clinic, citing the move as a liability precaution, as well as good financial sense, as there is no cost to Saltaire taxpayers since it is part of Northwell’s community service program.
Still, trustees are sensitive to the pivotal role Furey has played in the community for quite some time, and have entertained ideas of keeping him in some other capacity. So far, nothing has been decided. However, with the help of community members, the board managed to put together a farewell party for Furey at the Saltaire Yacht Club on Sunday, Aug. 18. (See Hugh O’Brien’s Saltaire column on page 14.)
“It was a nice turnout, and I always joke that the people came for free food, not for me,” he said. “But the people were very gracious, a lot of them made speeches about me and said very nice things.” Furey has seen a lot in over four decades as the Saltaire physician, and looks back happily on all his time on Fire Island. In reminiscing, he recounted happy, strange, and funny stories alike.
“The first ambulance call we ever had here, we went out and almost got stuck on the beach – the nude beach. The nudists helped to push us out of the sand and saved the day,” Furey said laughing.
When asked what he’d miss most about Saltaire, Furey responded, “The people,” without hesitation. “They are wonderful. They have been great to me, I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends out here, and I have great stories. That’s the sad part about leaving.”
Furey will finish out the summer season in the office he has always occupied, and will tend to patients until the very last moment he can. He hopes to return to Saltaire, if not as a physician, as a community member and friend.
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