Dr. Thomas Mercier walks into an examining room, introduces himself to a newborn’s parents and says, “Hi, have I ever met you before?”
This has become a common practice for the soon-to-retire Mattituck pediatrician, who has treated generations of North Forkers in nearly 40 years of medical practice.
Dr. Mercier and his wife, Barbara, a registered nurse, opened the practice together in August 1981. Both are now retiring and turning their practice over to Peconic Pediatrics.
“I think what I’m probably going to miss the most is the close contact with these families and these children,” Dr. Mercier said. “We have five patients that are the grandchildren of patients. It’s been quite interesting to watch.” Those grandparents first came to the Merciers as teenagers, and are now in their 50s. Their grandchildren are newborns.
The Merciers met in Manhattan at Roosevelt Hospital, now Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital, where Ms. Mercier was a pediatric nurse and Dr. Mercier was an intern. They married less than a year later and soon after they had the first of their three children. When their firstborn was about 2 years old, Dr. Mercier’s residency was coming to an end and they had to figure out their next step.
After their plans to open a practice in Greenwich Village fell through, the couple encountered someone at a yard sale on the North Fork who mentioned that there was a need for another pediatrician in the area. Three local doctors encouraged them to start their journey out here. Ms. Mercier’s family had summered on the North Fork, so she had some roots here already.
“It was called ‘hanging a shingle,’” Dr. Mercier, 66, explained. “You’d have a sign made saying you were a doctor and put it up and wait for people to show up.”
They got a phone line and one of the doctors who’d encouraged them to move agreed to rent them his office for almost nothing.
“People were starting to call and we were so excited … I said, ‘Thursday we can buy food,’” Ms. Mercier, 64, recalled. “That was how we got started.”
But it wasn’t smooth sailing from the beginning for the Mattituck couple. The practice was growing, but after about six months they realized they weren’t able to pay their rent. Before the age of health insurance, they’d sometimes get paid in potatoes, jewelry, lobster, fish and corn.
To cope with the ups and downs, the Merciers relied on their religious faith to guide them.
“We sat down and said, ‘Let’s just say a simple prayer,’ and we did,” Ms. Mercier remembered. “Twenty minutes after our childlike prayer, the phone rang and Dr. Campbell, the doctor in Southold, said that he was retiring and asked if he could send his patients to us. It was a transforming moment for us. We were supposed to be here.” Dr. John Campbell was the longtime pediatrician in the area before the Merciers took over. He and his family lived here for 44 years and then retired to South Carolina, where he died in 2001.
The community is grateful for the Merciers’ years of service and late night calls.
Jennie Boyle and Amy Prager helped organize a group photo to surprise the couple and thank them for their years of service. Ms. Boyle, of Southold, went to Dr. Mercier as a child and now brings her two children there.
“There’s been a lot of late night hours calling Dr. Mercier, asking him questions and him calming me down,” Ms. Boyle said. “There’s been numerous times that I’ve talked to him and was like, I don’t know what to do, and he was like ‘just calm down’ and it would actually relieve me, just hearing his voice.”
The Merciers remember when their house burned down in 1988. They stood with their three children on the front lawn and watched as all their belongings were destroyed. The community rallied around them and brought them meals for three months. Their owner of the house across the street let them live there for a year until their own house was rebuilt.
The area’s small-town charm has always humbled them. They liked being part of the fabric of the neighborhood and being able to see friends wherever they went.
Many years ago, an eighth-grade girl was looking through photos of the Mercier children that were displayed in their office. Pointing to a picture of their son Alexander, the girl said to her mother, “Wow, he’s handsome. I’m going to marry him one day.”
A year later, that girl met Alexander when she joined the same youth group at Community Christian Fellowship in Mattituck. Today, they are married with a baby.
A retirement potluck luncheon for the Merciers will be held Saturday, Aug. 26, at 11 a.m. at Veterans Park in Mattituck.
The couple plans to remain in Mattituck for the next phase of their life. Ms. Mercier said that at their age a lot of people downsize, but she can’t imagine doing that since their family is growing. They have four grandchildren with whom they want to spend a lot of time.
“It’s really been so much fun to interface with people and to walk into an examining room and see a kid sitting there, and then you look in their ear and you say, ‘Oh there’s a mouse in there,’ and just to have fun while I’m doing it,” Dr. Mercier said. “It’s been such a joy to have the privilege to do this, and to feel like the patients are not just customers, they’re our friends.”
Top photo: Dr. Tom and Barbara Mercier celebrate their last few working days in Southold. The two were a doctor-nurse duo for nearly 40 years. (Credit: Rachel Siford)