Edwin Montell loves to tell a good story. But there is one story he can't finish without getting choked up -- the story of why he became a doctor.
The New Jersey native was 12 years old when he suffered severe burns to his leg while playing with matches with some neighborhood buddies. He developed gangrene that kept him hospitalized for three months. Antibiotics weren't helping, so the family doctor recommended amputating his leg to stop the infection from spreading. "I was terrified," Montell remembers.
A New York doctor stumbled upon Montell's room and examined him. "I can save this boy's leg!" the doctor said. That doctor performed five operations on Montell's leg over six weeks. He kept his promise.
Montell pauses to grab a tissue. "Because my parents didn't have any health insurance or money, the doctor never charged them a dime," he continues, trying to hold back tears. "After that I never thought about being anything but a doctor. I laugh now when I say it, but at the time I thought doctors went around saving kids' legs and not charging any money."
He now returns the favor by providing care to some of his patients who can't afford treatment. "People are embarrassed when you give them charity care," he says. "But I tell them I'm paying off a debt that I'll never repay."
Montell, who has served on HMSA's board of directors since 1997, became the first gastroenterologist on the Big Island when he was hired by the Hilo Medical Group in 1979. A graduate of New Jersey College of Medicine, he practiced on the Mainland and in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s before coming to Hawai'i. In 1990, he opened Gastroenterology Associates and the Endoscopy Center with Dr. Timothy Jahraus. It's the only free-standing, physician-owned endoscopy center in the state.