A Surgeon and His Fishmonger


When Rick Lofstad, a third-generation Long Island fisherman whose remarkably fresh catch draws long lines at Union Square and other farmers’ markets, fell out of his truck, his arm almost became the one that got away.

It was Friday night and Lofstad was packing his watery wares when a slippery step sent him sailing. “I was in so much pain,” he recalled recently.  But since he didn’t have medical insurance (“I’ve never been sick a day in my life!”) he was reluctant to go to the emergency room. Weighing physical pain against financial torture, he remembered that his Saturday helper had an anesthesiologist for a mom. He called her, hoping she’d agree he could grin and bear it. Dr. Amy told him to go straight to the ER.

After three agonizing hours in the waiting room (“with a bunch of drunks from bar fights”) he received an X-ray, the news his arm was indeed broken, advice to see an orthopedist-and a bill for $800. The next day he missed market because he couldn’t drive the truck.

Monday morning, he called three orthopedists, all of whom required a $1,000 deposit before they’d even see him.

“So I said ‘Fuck ’em, I’m going fishing,'” recalled Lofstad.

The following Saturday he was back at market, arm in a sling. As he weighed out scaly selections, customers offered their sympathy, and one offered a rescue boat. For over a year, George Pianka had been Lofstad’s best customer, buying as much as $200 of fish a week. (“Who are you feeding-horses?” Lofstad had demanded. Close-Pianka had four teenage sons.) When Lofstad explained his situation, Pianka revealed he was a surgeon and volunteered to go from premier patron to chief caregiver. “Come see me Monday,” he told Lofstad, waving away offers of a lifetime of free fish.  “I’ll do it for nothing.”

When Lofstad appeared at Pianka’s posh Upper East Side office, any apprehensions he may have harbored quickly floated away: Pianka is chief hand surgeon for Lenox Hill Hospital, and for the New York Jets. In the waiting room Lofstad read framed magazine clippings listing Pianka as one of the top 10 surgeons in the country.

One good deed can inspire another; when Dr. Amy heard the news, she volunteered to handle Lofstad’s anesthesia for free, too.

But a week later, when Lofstad checked in to the hospital, a staffer filling out paperwork presented him with the biggest surprise of all. “You fell out of your truck?” she said. “You’re covered under no-fault auto insurance!” After four surgeries and seven months of morphine, Lofstad still counts Pianka as his best customer-who, against Lofstad’s protest, insists on paying for all his swordfish, tuna and scallops. Lofstad charges him-following the doctor’s orders. He still doesn’t have health insurance.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

Betsy Bradley

Elizabeth L. Bradley writes about New York City history and culture. She hopes to find Tiffany blue dragees in her Christmas stocking this year.

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