To some of his patients he's more than a doctor, he's a friend. To his students, he's an inspiration. And to the community, he's an institution.
Dr. Melvin B. Dyster is celebrating his 50th year as a family practice doctor in Niagara Falls and, at age 77, still making early morning rounds seven days a week with residents at Memorial Medical Center, seeing patients in the office and students at Niagara University's medical clinic, caring for migrant workers and making house calls.
He shows no signs of slowing down.
"I'd rather die with my stethoscope around my neck than in a hospital bed," Dyster said recently.
Dyster will be honored for 50 years in medicine at the medical center foundation's fund-raising gala Saturday.
Dyster is no stranger to awards and recognition, but his real rewards have nothing to do with parchment or plaques.
"I think the bottom line for me is people say medicine isn't like it used to be. It's no fun anymore with all the insurance companies, HMOs, the regulations. But one thing, they cannot take the doctor-patient relationship away . . . The doctor-patient relationship is something that just no one can take away from you no matter what the rules and regulations. When you're out and someone says, 'That's my doctor,' that's great," Dyster said.
Dr. Robert Bull, chief of family medicine at Mount St. Mary's Hospital and Health Center, refers to Dyster as "The Father of Family Medicine."
Dr. Jerome Andres, a partner with Dyster in Niagara Family Practice, calls him the epitome and ideal of family practice medicine.
"Any success I've had I owe to Dr. Dyster and my training here at Niagara Falls Memorial," said Bull, who started a clinic in Chiapas, Mexico, 10 years ago to provide medical and dental care to the indigenous poor. He did so, he said, "because as a resident I was encouraged to do migrant ministries here, and I still think back to those years as some of the best experiences of my residency training."
"If they made a statue of a family practitioner, they should make it of Dr. Dyster," Andres said. "He does everything. He leaves the rest of us in his dust. He founded the residency program. He's responsible for migrant workers clinics in the county. He's been in the Army. I could go on and on and on. He does more than probably five of us can do."
Andres and Bull are two of about 100 who have graduated from the Family Practice Residency Program since 1976, when Dyster started it to avert a shortage of primary care doctors in the area and because he wanted to see better-trained family doctors.
"I think we populated Western New York, including Niagara Falls, Lewiston, Ransomville and the Lockport area," Dyster said of the program's results. "They're working throughout the whole area here, and a lot of them come back to help teach, as well. Actually what we have done is we repopulated the primary care physicians in this area, rejuvenated the family doctors and, I think, it's also stepped up the level of knowledge and training. When you're teaching residents, you have to be on the ball. They ask questions."
That's one of the things his patients appreciate.
"He's up on everything. He's one step ahead of you. I can't praise him enough," said Mary Butticci.
She and her husband, Sam, have been Dyster's patients for more than 40 years.
"You might as well say we're friends," said Sam Butticci, who praises Dyster's personalized style of care. "He makes you feel like you're the only person in the world. I was in the hospital for a month and when I got out he said, 'Don't come to my office. I'm coming to your house.' If you have a problem and you call him, he always returns your call."
"I can't say enough about him," said James Mowrey of Wheatfield, a patient of five decades. "Yesterday he gave me and my son a flu shot. He said, 'Don't worry. I didn't steal it. It's my own.' He gave us his own flu shot."
Dyster joined the staff of the medical center in 1954. His career path took a few unexpected turns. He had wanted to be a veterinarian and took preveterinary training at Niagara University. He was headed to Cornell University Veterinary School when he was headed off by the late Dr. Thomas Morton, a Niagara University biology professor. Morton took an interest in the young Dyster and had him work as a student instructor.
Morton eventually prevailed on Dyster to pursue medicine of the human variety.
"Interestingly enough, he and his family became my patients. I said afterwards, 'That's a sneaky way to get your own doctor.' I took care of him until the day he died," Dyster said.
Dyster graduated from the University at Buffalo Medical School and did an internship and a year of internal medicine at the old St. Mary's Hospital. By that time, he decided he wanted to specialize in family medicine, which covers the full spectrum of pediatric, adult and obstetrical medicine.
Then Dyster had "a very good offer" to practice out of state, but family and relatives said, "No, stay here." Fifty years later, Dyster says, "They were right."
Helen Heughen, a retired registered nurse who did her training at Niagara University with Mary Dyster -- Dyster's wife, who died in 1999 -- was one of Dyster's first patients. She has been with him ever since, through the loss of two children, her husband's Alzheimer's, stroke and eventual death.
"He's one of the best that you could find. He is an excellent physician and a very kind, understanding man," Heughen said. "He has a soft spot for those less fortunate and steps to the plate to provide services for those most in need," said Patricia E. Berggren, vice president of Memorial's foundation and community relations. "He is a very, very unique man and physician. He has absolute compassion for the poor and the underserved."
That is evident, Berggren said, in Dyster's work at the Hamilton Mizer Primary Care Center, which serves predominantly inner-city residents who would find it very difficult to travel elsewhere for treatment, and with migrant workers in Niagara County.
Dyster spends three afternoons a week seeing patients at the Mizer Center, named for the late Gazette editor, and only two afternoons at his private practice.
Similarly, at least 25 years ago, Dyster got involved in a fledgling clinic for migrant workers started by a nun.
"We heard about it and said, 'What can we do?' It was a good rotation and experience for my residents so we started going down," Dyster said.
"We got donated drugs. We would go down there with several residents and medical students. We were seeing 50 patients a night. As it went on, they started getting grants to pay for things. The County Health Department came in and supplied its nursing staff to help, and then Memorial got involved with the mobile clinic with three exam rooms and we started using that and went each week to a different farm."
Also about that time, he started taking residents to "sick call" at Niagara University.
"I thought, 'This is great. What we'll do is start bringing the residents.' We go every Thursday and take care of students. The residents get a full spectrum of all the different areas," Dyster said.
In 1996, when they bestowed an honorary doctorate on Dyster, Niagara University officials estimated he had attended to more than 10,000 students over the years and had personally supplied books, medicines and equipment to the clinic.
Dyster credits some of his longevity in medicine to his decision to specialize in family practice, which he clearly considers more than satisfying. At a 50th medical school reunion in 2002, out of about 20 alumni from his class, only four said they would go back into medicine again. All were primary care doctors, he said.
"We take care of families all their lives," he said.
Dyster will be honored Saturday for his philanthropic efforts.
"His fund-raising efforts are unmatched," said Berggren. "Truly, Mel Dyster leads by example when it comes to philanthropic support for this hospital. . . . His entire family, under his leadership, stepped forward and provided significant support to establish the Mary C. Dyster Women's Pavilion."
These days, Dyster is starting up a Medical Reserve Corps to serve as a backup for emergency medical service providers in the county. It is affiliated with the Citizens Corps of Niagara Falls, a volunteer group that organizes people in advance to deal with civil emergencies, and has been recognized by the U.S. surgeon general. The program will put in place retired and active medical personnel to augment or relieve front-line workers, if needed.
He is a consultant on the Niagara Falls City Task Force for Bioterrorism Preparedness, a member of the county's Health Emergency Alert Response Team and an adviser on Memorial's Disaster Planning Committee.
"It's one of my pet subjects. I had my background in the Army so it was easy to switch over. It's just another little pet thing of mine," Dyster said of the Reserve corps. "I was getting bored. I needed something else to do."
Dyster says he's always kept active. He receives Holy Communion daily and gets comfort from his faith.
"I have strong religious feelings. That's probably helped a lot. I have a lot of faith," Dyster said. "I watch my diet. I have to watch my weight a little. It gets on and you can't get it off. I don't smoke. I do have a little glass of red wine several times a week with my supper and that actually raises your good cholesterol. So my cholesterol is under good control. I keep active, hunt and fish with my boys. I'm active in ham radio and computers." Last December, he had both his knees replaced. The knee problems dated back to an injury he received while in the Army Reserves, according to his oldest son, Paul, a former city councilman.
"I had them both done at the same time. It was just getting to the point where it was hard to keep going every day," Dyster said. "I had it done here. I had my rehab at Memorial and within six weeks I was driving a car. My feeling was if it's good enough for my patients, it's certainly good enough for me, or, put it the opposite way, if it's good enough for me it's good enough for my patients."
Dyster is quick to credit many others for aiding or enabling him in his life's work, chief among them his late wife, who he said passed on the community service ideal, and his 10 children, who have picked up the torch. Dyster and some of his children and their spouses have developed the Niagara Interactive Children's Experience at the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center.
Dyster was one of those who was instrumental in saving the former Niagara Falls High School and turning it into the center, according to Harold P. Faba, also one of the founders and the first chairman of the board. Faba said the Dysters have painted walls, donated and solicited contributions for items, such as a climbing wall, a gorge replica, a stage and a computer room. It has become a popular venue for birthday parties, Faba said.
"A lot of the things we've done were through people who have volunteered their services," Dyster said. "You can't do it alone. I think a lot of things I've accomplished were because of what my wife did -- she was so supportive and helpful -- and the family.
". . . The whole thing of my career, whether the residency program or medical volunteer corps, I'm just so pleased at people who volunteer and are willing to give up their time to help."