2020 Person of the Year: Dr. Lawrence Walser

Editor’s Note: The unique year we endured in 2020 led to a slight twist in our annual People of the Year. As a way to honor the extraordinary work done to combat COVID-19 over the past year at our local hospitals, Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital and Peconic Bay Medical Center, we present two Person of the Year stories here, including Shari Hymes.

When Dr. Lawrence Walser had time for a brief break from his duties managing an intensive care unit filled with COVID-19 patients at Peconic Bay Medical Center, he would send a quick video to his family members.

“Everybody be cool. I love you,” he would say, reassuring them that he was fine.

Even to his adult children, the doctor they spent their life admiring for his work ethic and devotion to helping others was hardly recognizable, covered from head to toe in personal protective equipment. At 66, and easing into retirement at the beginning of last year, Dr. Walser suddenly found himself on the front lines of a worldwide pandemic, leading the hospital’s effort to treat patients suffering from a never-before-seen virus.

When the initial wave of COVID-19 passed in late spring and the 14-hour work days eased back toward normal, Dr. Walser would FaceTime his son Daniel at 7 p.m. for a nightly New York City ritual, when residents would cheer on the health care workers during shift change. 

“My dad, with a smile on his face and an obvious feeling of warmth from the widespread sign of appreciation, would modestly say ‘I’m just doing my job,’ ” Daniel Walser wrote to The Suffolk Times. “And would further go on to say, ‘And I couldn’t do it without the team I have.’ ”

For Dr. Walser, director of pulmonary and critical care at PBMC, the medical profession has been more than just a job. It was a calling. From a young age he aspired to be a doctor, and specifically a pulmonologist.

“He simply loved science and wanted to help,” Daniel Walser said. 

When Dr. Walser would reassure his worried daughter Katy Walser-Kirby in San Diego, he’d remind her that he took an oath to help the sick and suffering. Despite the risk he faced himself from COVID-19 and the related risk to his wife, Diane, given her compromised immune system, Dr. Walser sought to shield his co-workers as much as possible by shouldering responsibility for personally examining patients.

For his leadership during a time of crisis, his tireless work ethic and the compassionate care he provided residents all across the East End, Dr. Walser is the 2020 Suffolk Times Person of the Year.

For the health care workers who bravely stepped up to battle the coronavirus, each day became a familiar routine.

“We would wake up before the world, douse ourselves in coffee, don our nonpermeable PPE, battle all day on our feet, cheer, cry, go home, disrobe in our garages, toss our clothes immediately in the wash, straight to the showers, and try to minimize our presence to our loved ones,” wrote Thomas O’Brien, a critical care physician assistant who worked alongside Dr. Walser.

Mr. O’Brien described Dr. Walser, who lives in Southold, as not only a mentor, but a friend to many.

“For months he battled as the leader of our team, with sweat-soaked gowns and red marked imprinted masked faces,” he said.

Dr. Walser would encourage Mr. O’Brien to avoid going into COVID patients’ rooms whenever possible. Instead, Dr. Walser said, he would take on that risk. “You have a lot more to lose than I do,” the doctor told him.

Mr. O’Brien, the father of two young children, ages 3 and 1, said he didn’t agree that Dr. Walser should shoulder the burden, “but I’ll remember that gesture forever,” he added.

Dr. Lawrence Walser with his wife, Diane, who helped support medical professionals and elderly neighbors living in self-isolation by cooking meals and baking desserts. (Courtesy photo)

“There are some that when the gunfire erupts, run toward the chaos, and Larry is that person,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Andrew Mitchell, PBMC’s chief executive officer, said Dr. Walser is “an invaluable part of our critical care team.”

“With his 37 years of critical care experience and an innate sense of how to deliver patient-centered care, Dr. Walser has become one of the most respected and well-liked physicians within our regional medical center and in our community,” Mr. Mitchell said.

As part of PBMC’s response to COVID-19, the newly opened Corey Critical Care Pavilion was transformed into a secondary ICU to provide the increased capacity needed. Dr. Walser oversaw both units, working “tirelessly to provide the best care we could to all of the ICU patients,” said Maureen Stefanidis, the nurse manager of the ICU.

“There are some that when the gunfire erupts, run toward the chaos, and Larry is that person.”

Thomas O’Brien

“He was selfless and did whatever he could while in a room assessing patients to help the nurses,” she added.

Even as he dealt with the pain of chronically tattered peroneal ankle tendon, Dr. Walser pushed on. At times, the pain left him limping around the hospital and barely able to walk down stairs. He used crutches and a walking scooter at one point, but never missed a day of work.

He brushed off questions when someone inquired about his injury.

Mr. O’Brien joked that he should tell people it was from a grizzly bear attack.

He would smirk and respond, “This is nothing compared to what others are facing,” Mr. O’Brien recalled.

The ankle ultimately required surgery, which Dr. Walser underwent after the first wave of the pandemic subsided.

“An event like COVID-19 has brought out the true heroes who have been hiding in our community for years,” said Judi Fouchet of Southold, who was known Dr. Walser for nearly 25 years. “Dr. Lawrence Walser is absolutely one of these people.”

Dr. Walser, who earned a medical degree by age 24, was uniquely suited to oversee the unprecedented response to COVID-19. Early in his career he worked on the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He had expertise in the recurring seasonal flu and the H1N1 outbreak from 2009 into 2010.

His family describes Dr. Walser as someone who shies away from the spotlight. But there was no avoiding that spotlight when, last fall, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at PBMC.

Ms. Stefanidis called it a “long deserved” honor for “all the time he has put in providing high quality and compassionate care to this community.”