The Brothers Cullen
Three brothers practice medicine the way their father taught them.
The brothers Cullen—Ed, Dennis and Colin—are walking down Wisconsin Avenue to dinner. Their father, Tom, started a medical practice after World War II, and together they are carrying on the tradition in Bethesda, caring for patients like old friends, not figures on a balance sheet. As they cross East-West Highway, a driver calls out the window, “Hey, Ed, Sibley doesn’t have the stuff for my pre-op.”
That’s the way it is with the Cullens. They can’t go anywhere in Bethesda without running into people they’ve known and treated for years. A young couple greets them outside Morton’s and the woman gives Ed a big kiss. Inside, a neurosurgeon who’s attending a medical dinner insists on telling the brothers a story. He had a patient, an attractive young woman, who was looking for a new internist and went to see Colin. But Colin was so good-looking, she feared she’d never pay attention to his words. So now, the surgeon said, pointing at Dennis, she’s your patient. Apparently you didn’t have the same effect on her.
Much laughter. Everyone in the Cullen clan knows his role. Colin, 40, is the dashing charmer. Ed, 55, is the good cop. “That spot was taken,” says Dennis, 51, so he became the acerbic tough guy. Colin protests: “There can be more than one good cop–remember all those buddy films?” “But one guy always dies in the end,” Dennis replies.
To his sons, Tom Cullen is hero and role model. “At the end of our days, we want to say, ‘The way he did it, we did it,’ ” Ed says. That’s not always easy, with insurance companies, hospital bureaucracies and government regulations getting in the way. Ed puts it this way: “The practice of medicine is the best and most honorable profession in the world. The business of medicine is awful. It’s killing us.”
But they’re having a lot of laughs along the way. Dinner with the Cullens is like landing in the middle of a TV sitcom. There are 11 kids (nine boys, two girls), and the family provides plenty of material. They quote their dad as saying that having so many children made him “an expert on secondhand cars and second-rate colleges.” One time, they recall gleefully, Tom went to Hechinger’s to buy a workbench and slipped the salesman $20, asking him to assemble the bench for him. “Hey, buddy,” the salesman replied, “if I have to put it together for you, you don’t need a workbench.”
Tom Cullen died 10 years ago, suffering a stroke at Columbia Country Club while watching a Notre Dame-Navy football game. But his spirit and sensibility live on through his sons. They quote another of his aphorisms: “Every day, medicine is a lesson in humility. And if you get up early, you learn two lessons.”
Tom grew up in Scranton, Pa., joined the Marines at 17, served in China, went to college on the GI Bill and at 20, married his high school sweetheart, Mary Jane Dempsey (their families had adjoining houses at a nearby lake where the Cullen clan still gathers on summer weekends).
Then came medical school at Georgetown University, a residency at the Bethesda Naval Hospital and a partnership in a practice that started in Southeast Washington, D.C., in 1956. Tom didn’t urge his children to become doctors, but he taught by example. “You always felt that this was his calling,” Dennis says. Of course, they noticed the demands on their father—midnight calls, missed birthdays, patients that required attention even on Sundays. Dennis recalls going to Redskins games with his father, then sitting around for hours in the car while dad made hospital rounds: “We stopped going to the doctors’ lounge because, on occasion, he’d forget and go home without you.” But they were not deterred, Colin says. “He was a performance guy, and this was his performance art. The three of us never wanted to do anything else.”
Ed followed his father to Georgetown (all three went there) and was working in the Public Health Service to pay off his bills in 1982 when he got a call from his dad, whose health was starting to decline: “He just sort of said one day, ‘It’s time. You’ve got to come back now.’ ”
By this time, the practice was divided between Prince George’s County and Friendship Heights, where Tom had an office in the Barlow Building. The family home was on Legation Street in Chevy Chase, D.C., and Ed returned to the old neighborhood, barely a mile from where he grew up. In fact, nine of the 11 Cullens still live in the area (Ed on Rittenhouse Street, Colin on Quesada Street), and most sent their kids (there are 37 in all) to nearby Blessed Sacrament Elementary School. “If you dropped a bomb on Chevy Chase Circle, you’d get us all,” laughs Ed. (Dennis married “a girl from Potomac” and lives “outside the Beltway,” which sounds like “Bangladesh” to his brothers. Another brother is in Baltimore.)
All three dreamed of practicing with their father, but illness had forced Tom to retire by the time Dennis and Colin finished school. Ed and Dennis are internists, but Colin also studied pediatrics and treats children as well as adults. “From basket to casket,” he jokes, and when his brothers groan, he tries again: “Toothless to toothless? Diaper to diaper?” (Another partner, Charles “Chip” Umosella, joined them more than 20 years ago and always “covers for us on St. Patrick’s Day.”) The main office moved a few years ago to Wisconsin Avenue and Middleton Lane in Bethesda, but the core of their practice remains the families who started with Tom a generation or two ago. “I know their mother’s maiden names, I know who they are,” Dennis says. And the patients return that loyalty. After a couple split up recently, both asked to keep Ed as their physician. And both did.
Still, the doctor-patient relationship has changed since their father’s day, and not for the better. “People really devalue what you do,” Colin says. Adds Dennis: “You are not the family friend who has their best interests at heart.” There’s a good side to the shift, Colin says: “We’re not as paternal.” Adds Dennis: “You’ve got to build consensus.” But it drives him crazy when a patient comes in and says, “I read on the Web that mosquitoes cause hair loss.”
Hospital bureaucracies are another pet peeve. “They handcuff you,” Dennis complains. “You can’t admit a patient to the ICU without a consultant.” But the worst, they say, are insurance companies. Their responsibility, Colin complains, is “not to their patients but to their stockholders.” Their aim, Dennis chimes in, is to find “the low water mark,” the minimum payment that doctors will accept. “There’s a lot of chiseling” about paying the bills, Ed adds, and Colin sums up the brothers’ mood: “It’s a testimony to how great it is to be a doctor, and how great our practice is, because if it wasn’t so great, who would put up with all this B.S.?”
Every day, the Cullens try to practice medicine the way their father taught them. One of Tom’s legacies is caring for the Catholic clergy, and today Dennis does the Jesuits, Colin the Christian Brothers and Ed the Missionaries of Charity, the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa. As we leave the restaurant, Dennis is razzing Ed: You like the nuns because they’re the only patients that are shorter than you. You should challenge them to a basketball game! You could post ’em up, go to the hoop! And their laughter echoes down the empty avenue, lighting the way home.
Steve Roberts teaches political science and journalism at The George Washington University. His latest book is My Fathers’ Houses.