Q: I was paralyzed with polio in the 1947 epidemic in Centralia. In 1948, Dr. Kilian Fritsch, who had polio himself, performed surgery on me. He also developed Kilmar Woods, the small subdivision where he lived behind the building in which he practiced in Belleville. I’ve always been interested in finding more information about him, but can’t seem to find any.
Marilyn Glasscock and Judy Belleville, of Belleville
A: This is one question I’m all too happy to answer because Kilian Fritsch was certainly a revered name in the Schlueter household.
For the last 20 years of her life, my mom battled a hideous disease known as scleroderma. I’ll spare you all the grim details, but one of its many nasty manifestations was the periodic accumulation of large sacs of calcium in her arms and legs. Once they reached a certain size, they began impinging on her range of motion as they became entangled with muscles, tendons and other tissue, so they had to be surgically removed.
These forced extremely delicate operations, and I remember a particularly large growth in her right leg, the removal of which she feared might leave her in a wheelchair. But during an operation that seemed to last an eternity, Dr. Fritsch successfully removed the mass just as he had two similar growths in her arms. Less than a month later, Mom was home, baking a peach pie, according to my dad’s journal. (As a sidelight, it was Fritsch and one of his associates, Henry Hurd, who treated my broken arm in 1968.) So seldom do I drive past the Kil-Mar Professional Building at 8601 W. Main St. without remembering those days so long ago now.
When you look over his resumé, you quickly realize how lucky the metro-east was to have a doctor of his caring and caliber practicing here for nearly five decades. He was a native of East St. Louis, where he was a member of the first graduating class of Central Catholic High School. Then, after graduating from Saint Louis University School of Medicine with an M.D. at 22, he became the first orthopedic surgeon in Southern Illinois when he returned to East St. Louis to open an office in 1944.
As you noted, he himself had contracted polio just after his fifth birthday in 1921, and it was his experiences with the disease and his later treatment at Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children (which had opened its doors in 1924) that made his career choice inevitable, Jeanne Dahlmann, of Belleville, one of his daughters, told me.
While sitting around the dinner table with his wife, Mary, and eight children, Fritsch would tell stories of his initial care at the former Jewish Hospital, where a second-shift nurse would refuse to leave on a light at night despite his fear of the dark. But every night at about 11:15, the overnight nurse would come in his room to turn on the light in the bathroom.
“He never forgot that,” Dahlmann said. “And he used to tell us, ‘Kindness doesn’t cost you anything. You need to be kind and good.’”
Such stories gush from Dahlmann’s memory. As a high school student, she would work in her father’s office and take note of the “mind-boggling” number of files he kept that were labeled “n.c.” — no charge. She also remembers being told of the monthly lunches he would have with Vince and Rich Sauget and former East St. Louis state Sen. Kenneth Hall.
“At the end of the lunch, my dad would always ask them, ‘What have you done for the poor since I’ve seen you last?’ Because he always said that when somebody has been blessed, they have a responsibility to share. He was a tremendous role model for all of us. There were times when he would just say, ‘You are no better than anybody else, and don’t you ever forget it.’ He was a very humble man.”
He spent his entire adult life with his left leg braced from foot to hip, yet Dahlmann said the family never looked upon him as “handicapped.” He constantly told his children “Be tough, be tough” — the same thing he often congratulated his young patients for being after setting their broken limbs.
“And when (Dr. Jonas) Salk came out with the polio vaccine (in 1955), my dad went to every school in East St. Louis and gave the vaccination to everybody because he never wanted anyone else to suffer.”
Fritsch would serve 30 years as an attending orthopedist at the Division of Services for Crippled Children in downstate Illinois. In 1950, that devotion to caring for disabled youngsters led him to being named Man of the Year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But all of this just begins to scratch the surface of his work. He taught at Saint Louis University and Southern Illinois University and was an associate or consulting orthopedist at the universities of Illinois and Missouri and the Veterans Administration. He also was a leading figure in a number of professional organizations, including charter memberships in the Illinois and St. Louis Orthopedic societies and various offices in the International College of Surgeons and American Board of Orthopedic Surgeons, just to name a couple.
When he was wasn’t treating his patients, he was practicing his Catholic faith, which was central to his life, Dahlmann said. He served as a district governor for Serra International, became a life member of the Knights of Columbus Council 592 and worked on the Laymen’s Foundation at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows.
“He was only 5-foot-4, but he was truly bigger than life,” Dahlmann said.
Yet even with that hectic schedule, he and Mary, his wife of 45 years, raised six daughters and two sons, all of whom wound up in service occupations of one form or another, including Dr. Kilian Fritsch, a psychotherapist in Philadelphia; Mary Kathleen, a medical social worker; Margaret, a doctor of audiology; Suzanne, a nurse; Jeanne, a retired psychiatric and chemical dependency therapist; Patricia, a teacher; John, a salesman; and the late Elizabeth Ann, who worked for Cultural Care Au Pair.
But it was during his 50th year of medical practice that he died at age 73 on Sept.15, 1989. He was buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery, but his memory no doubt lives on in countless patients and families like myself who will be forever grateful for his skill and devotion.
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