On Top of the World
He made history as the youngest person to summit the world’s seven highest mountains, has traveled to far-off lands to help those many deem “untouchable” and yet, to the little patients whose lives he is saving, he’s simply Dr. Boo
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Becoming Dr. Boo
Earning six Emmys during its run from 1955 through 1984 on CBS (altered re-runs later ran on PBS until 1992), Captain Kangaroo—featuring the Captain and his sidekicks Mister Green Jeans, Bunny Rabbit, Grandfather Clock and Mr. Moose—transported young viewers to a calm, comfortable place, teaching them about animals and showing them how to grow plants from seeds.
The elder Keeshan’s profession was kept a secret from his own children and grandchildren for a time. To wit: a Captain Kangaroo performance at Carnegie Hall. “My grandmother took my father and his siblings and they were upset that their father wasn’t there because they had no idea what their father did!” The Captain was able to deceive his family because of his character’s grandfatherly disguise of gray bangs and bush brows. “He was young but he was smart in that he dressed up like a sixty-year-old man. He had longevity there,” laughs Keehsan. And, similarly, when he accompanied his grandfather to a clown parade in Milwaukee, he was mystified when everyone in the airport was stopping them to say hello to his grandfather.
But even after he learned of his grandfather’s alter ego, Keeshan would watch the show and marvel. “The person you saw on TV was really who he was in real life.” And the Captain who encouraged his viewers to dream, dared Keeshan to climb. “When my parents had trepidations about my going off and climbing, he was the first one to convince them to let me go.” When Keeshan decided he too wanted to work with children, albeit as a doctor, he says his grandfather never prescribed a career path. He simply told him, “I support you. Go out and do your best.”
Educated at Middlebury and Dartmouth and the University of Vermont College of Medicine, Keeshan is now an attending physician in the cardiology division of the esteemed Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Unaware of those impeccable credentials, to his little charges he is “Dr. Boo.” Keeshan explains that one of his patients suffered from an abnormality that results in a heart rate that’s too fast. Non-medication treatment included literally startling the child. So whenever the toddler’s heart went into an abnormal rhythm, Keeshan ran into his room and scared him with a big “boo.” The name stuck and the inventive valor was not forgotten. Keeshan says the patient’s father recently thanked him again, bringing platters of food to the cardiology floor at Christmas, and informing him his son has been free of abnormal rhythms for the last two years.
Another part of being a pediatrician is guiding families into healthy habits. Keeshan tells of a six-year-old who weighed more than 100 pounds and had become anti-social, depressed and a target for teasing. Instead of bombarding the family with recommendations and making them feel more helpless, Keeshan suggested eliminating one soda a day as a start. Three years later, the child has lost weight, become active and has made friends. “It’s so simple but he feels like he has options he never had before. These types of stories are by far the favorite part of my job.” Those stories, and the spontaneous moments when a patient spots Keeshan in the hall and gives him a hug.
You might wonder what challenges are left for Keeshan to embrace. While scaling the Seven Summits and attending Middlebury with a double major, he also visited Ethiopia, where he volunteered at a Mother Teresa AIDS clinic, and donated time at a leprosy clinic in the Himalayas. When asked how the experience changed him, he answers, “The question is, how can it not change you?” At Mother Teresa’s, he observed the more able-bodied sick taking care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves. “Here, we take for granted the luxuries of our medical system and we feel entitled. There, it would not be uncommon for a family to have traveled for days to the clinic and then sit patiently outside the gates waiting until hopefully someone had time to see them—never any complaints.” Keeshan says the experience has made him more patient. “I’m better equipped to be happy about the things we can do, and patients we can help, as opposed to dwell on what we can’t.”
Keeshan has no current plans to continue his philanthropy overseas because of his professional schedule; yet having just completed his residency, he is looking for new challenges at home. One of them will be moving, along with his dermatologist husband, Campbell Stewart, to Seattle in July so Keeshan can begin a cardiology fellowship. “It would have been easy for us to stay here in Philadelphia, but I decided to go to Seattle because it’s comfortable here now. I think you have to take yourself out of your comfort zone.”
Though he won’t be jumping out of a plane in Seattle, in June, he’ll be hopping on a bike—something he had never done until about a year ago—to ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles with his brother to raise money for an AIDS foundation. It’s also a way to honor his father, the late Michael Keeshan, a Saatchi & Saatchi vice president and biking enthusiast. (Keeshan’s mother, Lynn, still lives in Old Greenwich.)
As for the future of his career, Keeshan says he’d like to take his medical skills around the world, to help kids with heart defects. He says the research component of his profession has made him aware that “we have a finite amount of health resources in this country.” The difficulty is meeting the needs of “all the underserved populations of children.”
Keeshan does have other mountains to scale, literally. It’s been five or six years since he’s climbed one, and yes, he’d love to go back to Alaska, especially since he’ll be living in Seattle, which he notes, is more of a climbing community than Philadelphia. Or Greenwich.
Reflecting upon his childhood, he says, “I am not a natural athlete by any stretch of the imagination.” In fact, he was often third or fourth string on the hockey team and never participated in any travel sports. “I’m just an average guy,” he says with utter sincerity. An average guy who’s at the top of his field, and who’s climbed to the top of the world to honor the grandfather who made him believe he could. “It was,” says Keeshan, “just a small recognition of the fact that we only achieve what we achieve because of the people who helped get us there.”