“I have people who live here now,” he says, sitting in his quiet, sunny apartment at Whitney Center in Hamden. “They come up to me and say, ‘You helped me understand my child better.’ What more can I ask for?”
Dr. LaCamera spent forty years practicing “the care of the whole child” as a pediatrician, alongside Dr. Morris A. Wessel, and later bringing in Dr. Robert Anderson, on Howard Avenue, across from Yale-New Haven Hospital. Their philosophy at the time was almost radical: that the physical health of the child was directly related to the stability and wellbeing of the family as a whole.
“To me, the focus was how to be a better parent. Because being a better parent automatically helps to have better caring for the child. It’s as simple as that. And, we felt that there were parents who should get some guidance from their pediatrician; we wanted to be available, to help.”
Starting out as a resident pediatrician in Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. LaCamera wanted more experience in cardiology, and was directed to Yale University.
“I didn’t even know that Yale had a medical school!” he laughs. He is currently Clinical Professor of Pediatrics and Nursing, Emeritus, at Yale School of Medicine.
When he first arrived in New Haven in 1954, as a fellow at Yale Medical School, Dr. LaCamera worked closely with families of children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities. In the years following his fellowship, as he and Dr. Wessel were establishing their practice, they realized there were not very many places where parents could otherwise get this guidance.
“A lot of pediatricians just wanted to treat the illness or disease. What Morris and I did was think, how would we be if we were the parent to each child we saw? What would we do? What would we be looking for?”
His outlook, experience and expertise led to Dr. LaCamera serving as medical director at Easter Seals/Goodwill Industries Rehab Center and at Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), helping parents and families with their roles and responsibilities in caring for children with different and various levels of need. But the focus was always on his practice and the families he made himself available to any hour of the day.
“Sometimes it’s the smallest thing – a few words at a regular office visit – that can change their lives,” he says, maintaining that as a reason he and Dr. Wessel never moved their office from Howard Avenue.
“We felt we needed to stay, in order to ensure people living in the inner city still had access to the medical practice. They couldn’t do that if we moved out to the suburbs.”
After retiring in 1996, Dr. LaCamera maintained his commitment to families and children, and turned to The Community Foundation for help in making a difference for years to come.
“When I retired, I thought ‘Where can I put some money and help to make a difference?’ If there was some money that was given [by friends and family], I wanted it to go toward helping families meet the needs of their children…that’s how all this started.”
The Responsible Parenting Fund honoring Robert. G. LaCamera, MD was initially established to train pediatricians in the manner that he and Dr. Wessel operated their practice.
“I can understand why some parents are not fully engaged in the care of their children, because it’s a job. And it’s changing every day, which pediatricians understand, but parents may not. And so, I felt my role was to help parents understand how they can be helpful.”
Over the years, the Fund’s purpose has changed. It is now a designated fund to benefit the Clifford W. Beers Guidance Clinic, which has a vision mirroring Dr. LaCamera’s own: that the outcome of a child’s wellbeing depends on that of the entire family, not simply treatment of the child.
“I’m an optimist, I’ve never not been. But being as optimist doesn’t mean everything in life is like a big bunch of flowers. Sometimes the flowers need help, whether it’s water or a change of environment.”
Being a caregiver came very naturally to Dr. LaCamera, who was actually the younger of twin brothers, by about fifteen minutes. His brother, Frank was a cardiologist in St. Petersburg, FL for more than fifty years before passing away in 2015. Their father was a general practitioner in Northeastern Ohio, where they were raised. Their grandmother was a midwife in Italy, before immigrating to the U.S. in 1883.
Dr. LaCamera was recently honored by the ACES Education Foundation for his commitment throughout the years to children. He has served on the ACES Education Foundation’s Board of Directors and has helped the organization with the formation of a multigenerational program at Whitney Center.
He is encouraged by the fact that psychosocial development is becoming more commonplace in schools and youth programs.
“What I always did, what we all did, was to see a problem, see what we could do, and then – when it became widespread – to move on.”
He says he is also interested in and inspired by the work of so many organizations to reintegrate citizens back into the workforce and their communities. He says the best thing for rising professionals and budding philanthropists to do is to keep their eyes and ears open to see where they can be helpful.
“As a community, what can we do, what must we do, to make a difference?”