SARANAC LAKE - The local medical community and the community at large are mourning the loss of a respected member.
Dr. C. David Merkel, a surgeon who practiced in Saranac Lake for more than 40 years and founded High Peaks Hospice, died Saturday at his home. He was 75.
Merkel's colleagues, co-workers and friends are remembering him for his steadfast dedication to medicine and his commitment to the community he called home. Adirondack Health CEO Chandler Ralph called Merkel a "great friend and revered physician.
On the first day Dr. David Merkel, left, joined his father, Dr. Carl Merkel, in a tandem surgical team, seen here in summer 1969, nurses at General Hospital of Saranac Lake (now Adirondack Medical Center) hung signs joking about “two Merkels for the price of one.”
(Enterprise file photo — Bill McLaughlin)
"Dr. Merkel was instrumental in developing this Medical Center and was beloved by his patients, his colleagues and our staff," Ralph said in a statement. "I know he always brought brightness to my day and was so often a voice of reason. His legacy is abundant and rich, and we will miss him terribly."
A post about Merkel's passing on AMC's Facebook page Monday drew dozens of mournful comments from people all across the country who knew him.
"He was the quintessential gentleman," Michelle Hill, manager of the Adirondack Surgical Group where Merkel worked, told the Enterprise Monday. "What he gave to this practice was an amazing thing. What he gave to the community was an amazing thing. We're all deeply saddened."
Born in Rochester and raised in Saranac Lake, Merkel followed in the footsteps of his father, Dr. Carl Merkel, a general and thoracic surgeon at the General Hospital of Saranac Lake and the co-founder of the surgical group. David Merkel is actually a third-generation member of the Saranac Lake medical community; his great uncle was the medical director for the Trudeau Sanitorium.
After graduating medical school at McGill University in Montreal and completing his residency at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, Merkel returned to Saranac Lake and joined his father's practice in 1969. He joined the medical staff of the hospital that same year and later became its chief of surgical services.
Dr. Richard Kasulke was a partner with Merkel at the Adirondack Surgical Group from 1981 to 2003.
"I worked kind of elbow-to-elbow with him during that period of time," said Kasulke, who now has a medical practice in Geneva. "He was really quiet, very practical, had a great sense of humor and was a very kind, compassionate guy. He was a good teacher if you wanted to learn, and always willing to lend a hand. He was dedicated to what he did, without any reservation."
Kasulke also described Merkel as a "classic old-school doc.
"Dave carried the tradition of being one of the old-timers, with more of a holistic approach to things as opposed to what you see now, which is, 'I'm a vascular surgeon, this guy's the urologist, this guy's the thoracic guy.' The people of his era were the last people to do all this stuff. Nowadays it's completely different."
In addition to his civilian medical career, Merkel had a long and distinguished career as a physician with the U.S. Army Reserves. He served with the 310th Field Hospital and 376th Combat Support Hospital in Malone, retiring with the rank of colonel in 1997 after 32 years of military service.
Perhaps Merkel's most lasting legacy is High Peaks Hospice, which he and his wife Ann were instrumental in founding in 1986. The organization now has 50 employees, numerous volunteers and three offices covering a large swath of the North Country.
"They found a need in the community for hospice services that were beyond the traditional end-of-life services," said High Peaks Hospice Director of Development Darsie Townsend. "The two of them, with a lot of other community members, worked very hard to establish the agency, especially David and Ann. Without them, High Peaks Hospice would have never been."
Since its inception and until the day he died, Merkel served as the organization's medical director. Townsend said Merkel worked closely with hospice's clinical staff in a way that was both personal and professional.
"I stopped in the office on Church Street on my way in just to see how everybody was doing, and I think they were all in a state of shock," Townsend said. "We were family. He's always been there since the beginning. It's a very hard loss for the agency. We're just really going to miss him."
Merkel's loss will also be felt by the Saranac Lake community, given his involvement in a wide range of activities and pursuits, Townsend said.
"The thing that struck me about David, and I wrote to Ann today, is his really deep sense of loyalty to the community," she said. "He did so much for so many throughout the community, in so many ways that you can't even begin to count them."
A funeral service for Dr. C. David Merkel is tentatively scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Church of St. Luke in Saranac Lake, with burial to follow at St. John's Cemetery in Paul Smiths. A complete obituary is expected for publication Wednesday or Thursday.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.