By the time he talked about Dr. Herbert Dardik of Tenafly, enough time had passed for Warren Geller to have assimilated the fact of Dr. Dardik’s death.
But whenever Mr. Geller — the president and CEO of Englewood Health — mentioned Dr. Dardik, it was in the present tense.
That’s because Dr. Dardik was such a vivid presence, such a vital part of the hospital for so many decades, such a strong personality and such a creative, multitalented teacher and leader, that it was hard for his colleagues to believe that he had died on May 11.
Dr. Dardik was a vascular surgeon, a pioneer in his field, the chief emeritus of both vascular and general surgery at Englewood Health. He was a clinician, researcher, teacher, and writer. He was also an active member of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood.
Dr. Alan Dardik is one of Herbert and Janet Dardik’s three children; all of them are doctors. Alan is a vascular surgeon, like his father; he lives in New Haven, Connecticut, where he teaches surgery at Yale, works at the local VA hospital, because he believes in the importance of the VA system and the obligation that society has to veterans, and is the president of the New England Vascular Society. Michael is a pathologist, and Sharon is a pediatrician.
Herbert Dardik — who was better known as Chaim to those people who dared call him by his first name, as Mr. Geller never did, he said — was born in Long Branch in 1935. His father, Moshe, had been in the Russian army and deserted; he and his wife, Sonia, “walked across Russia and eastern Europe, just the two of them,” Alan Dardik said. The family has a photo of Moshe and Sonia in Danzig, ready to board a ship for Southampton, England; from there they went directly to New York, landing on July 4, 1923. (The photo was published in the Forward, back when it was a Yiddish-language daily.)
It is worth noting that Moshe Dardik was 16 years old when he deserted the Red army, and Sonia was 13.
“My grandfather was a 13th generation shochet,” a ritual slaughterer, Dr. Dardik said, and then he made the inevitable joke. “It was the family business, and my father used to say that he remained in that business.” And there’s more. “One of my nephews is a rabbi, and he moved to Israel and took up being a shochet there.”
Moshe also taught children Hebrew and how to daven in Long Branch, and Sonia commuted to New York to work in sweatshops as a seamstress. They had six children, three boys and three girls; everyone went to college, one of the daughters earned a doctorate in art, and all three sons became physicians.
“One of the things that my grandfather was famous for is that when immigrants would come to this country, they’d stay in my grandparents’ house, and my grandfather would send them across the country to the communities that they should be in.” He knew everyone, and had a great sense of who would fit in best where. “One of the people he dispatched was Rabbi Swift.” That was Isaac Swift, who founded Ahavath Torah in Englewood and led it for decades. “When Rabbi Swift came from London, the first place he stayed was with my grandfather,” Dr. Dardik said. “He married everyone in my family.” (He means that Rabbi Swift performed the ceremony, not that he practiced serial monogamy…) “He married my mother and father, he married my wife and me.” The Dardik family’s ties to Ahavath Torah remain strong.
Herbert Dardik’s wife, Janet, came from a family that had landed in the new world during the wave of immigration in the 1880s. Her father, Alfred Goldstein, was a lawyer, a Cornell graduate, and made a comfortable middle-class life for his family in Jersey City. The Goldsteins would spend their summers and the high holidays at a hotel, the Vendome Plaza, on the Jersey shore, where Herbert Dardik would make some extra money during his college years by leading services. Mothers would bring their daughters to meet him, Dr. Dardik said; he remained uninterested in those daughters until he met Janet Goldstein. The first year, when Ms. Goldstein was 17, there weren’t many sparks, but the next year, when he was 22, they flew. The couple married a few months later.
Dr. Dardik went to NYU as an undergraduate — paid for in part by his membership in the ROTC — and stayed there for medical school; Janet Goldstein Dardik went to Jersey City State College, was valedictorian there, and became a high school English teacher. Later she earned a masters in guidance counseling, and later still became a mediator for the New York court system.
After he graduated, Herbert Dardik went to Andrews Air Force Base to fulfill his ROTC commitment; there he “had the opportunity to do the medical support for a Gemini mission,” Alan Dardik said. Then the Dardiks moved back to the New York area; he worked at Montefiore Hospital, and began his groundbreaking work in vascular surgery, an area that had drawn increased interest since the need for it increased during the Korean conflict and then the war in Viet Nam.
In 1968, the Dardik family moved to Teaneck, and in 1976 they moved to Tenafly. All three of the Dardik kids went to the Moriah School, and then Alan and Michael went to the Frisch School; their sister went to Dwight-Englewood. Meanwhile, Herbert Dardik went to work at what then was called Englewood Hospital, “and he became chief of surgery for over 40 years and chief of vascular surgery for over 25 years,” his son said.
Among his other groundbreaking work, his father “invented a new graft made from a baby’s umbilical cord,” Alan Dardik said. “When we grew up, we had a refrigerator in the basement, and when we would have friends over who opened the refrigerator to get something to drink, they’d see umbilical cords all over the place. That was very normal for us.”
His father would write for medical journals, he wrote a few books for professionals in his field, and he would mentor students. He’d often host visitors from around the world, who were drawn by his reputation. “People would come to visit him in the operating room, and afterward, to relax, for maybe about 10 or 15 years he had a boat — it was named the Moriah — that he kept in the Palisades Boat Basin,” Dr. Dardik said. “His favorite thing to do was to take visitors in a circle around Manhattan. It usually took about two or three hours. And then he’d bring them to our house for dinner. So his visitors not only would see him professionally, but they would see how he relaxed at home with his family.”
In a way, Dr. Dardik said, his father was recreating what he’d learned from his own father about the Jewish value of welcoming visitors and extending generous and genuine hospitality.
“When my father died, I put out one tweet, just saying that he’d died, and I got more than 1,000 personal responses.” People wrote about how Dr. Dardik had welcomed them, and how much he’d taught them.
“Another of his passions was bloodless surgery,” Dr. Dardik said; that endeared him to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose beliefs rule out blood transfusions. “They honored him for his humanism,” Dr. Dardik said.
Dr. Ibrahim Ibrahim of Old Tappan, who also is a vascular surgeon, worked with Dr. Dardik for decades. “The first thing that impressed me when I met him was his genuine enthusiasm for taking care of patients and for surgery,” Dr. Ibrahim said. “His main thrust was medicine, not profit. He always lived by the mantra that his father taught him — take good care of your patients, and everything else will follow. That is what we did over the years.”
Herbert Dardik was interested in both people and science. “He felt that there is a wealth of information in community hospitals that can advance surgery and medicine — if you know how to use it,” Dr. Ibrahim said. “There is so much data that no one bothered to compile — and he compiled it.
“He loved to teach, and his students — whether they were high school students or college students or medical students or residents — all loved him, to the point that after they finished and graduated they would call him for advice. He loved that. He loved that he helped develop a whole new generation of surgeons and doctors.
“He was the kind of person you wanted to go to for advice, and not just medical advice. People would go to him for advice about their lives.”
“My relationship with Dr. Dardik started about 10 years ago, when I first entertained coming to New Jersey, and we hit it off immediately,” Thomas Bernik said. Dr. Bernik is now Englewood’s chief of vascular surgery; even before he met Dr. Dardik he knew him by reputation — “everyone in the field knew about him” — but he didn’t know what to expect personally. “He became a father figure to me immediately, and we developed an intense friendship. I would say that he was as close to being my second dad as I could imagine. In terms of character, he had the greatest character, the best soul, the best heart. He was an incredible guy.”
That was the personal part. When it came to medicine, “we were very very close colleagues,” Dr. Bernik said. “We shared everything.”
Dr. Bernik, the son of Slovenian immigrants who later moved back to Slovenia, grew up in Tenafly and graduated from Tenafly High School. He established his career in New York but always thought of moving back to Bergen County. In 2015, Dr. Dardik “was in the later stages of his career,” he said. “He couldn’t handle the clinical volume any more.” He handed some of that over to Dr. Bernik, “and he was just incredibly generous in giving me his practice and all his knowledge and camaraderie and assistance, and he took on the role of educator.”
Stepping back did not come easily to Dr. Dardik at first, Dr. Bernik said, but he was persuaded into it when he joined a study about aging physicians run by Johns Hopkins. “He went down there and blew them away with his answers, and then he came back and had a revelation,” Dr. Bernik said. “It was true about being an aging surgeon, and you have to look at yourself and reassess and make sure that you are capable. And he was at peace with that.” So in place of clinical work, Dr. Dardik devoted even more energy both to research and to the fellowships that brought in more young students.
“He had an incredible ability to take a kid — a medical student or even a high school student — and spend time with them, sometimes literally several hours, and just infuse them with learning and education and the importance of science. It was incredible. He was selfless about it, and he got such joy from it.
“Our offices were across the hall from each other, and I would watch him as he took these kids and infused then with passion. That is why so many students chose to go into medicine and health care and research.
“He was an expert in fostering excitement in learning.
“You never get the combination that he had. He was a true scientist. He was one of the founders of vascular surgery. He was an excellent surgeon. And he was an excellent writer. You never get that combination of doctor and scientist and writer in one person. And he was not a pompous or conceited guy, which is rare these days. He was down to earth and had a humility that was unique.
“And everybody really loved him.”
“He was a renaissance man,” Warren Geller said. “He is one of the most well-rounded individuals that I’ve ever worked with.” Here, as throughout the discussion, Mr. Geller slipped from the past to the present tense. “He loves music, he plays the piano, he is incredibly well read, and of course he is a true scientist.
“He told me a couple of months back that his disappointment with not being around for the next 25 years is that he won’t have the opportunity to witness the advancements coming in medicine. He is so blown away by what’s happened in the last two or three decades and just can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon.”
Dr. Dardik pursued his passions, Mr. Geller said. “Until he was ill in the last few years, he would get up every morning and swim laps in his pool, outside. He’d do that all the way through November. He would swim, and then run inside without a towel or a robe on. He said it was exhilarating. In the winter, he’d reluctantly go to the JCC to swim. And then he’d come to work, and he’d do that every day.”
Like everyone else who talks about Dr. Dardik, Mr. Geller talks about family and relationships and love. “He is one of my mentors — I don’t want to say in my career. Not only there. In my life. He lights up when he asks you about your children. He came to my daughters’ bnot mitzvah, and you would have thought they were the only kids to ever have read haftarah. It was a wonderful way to be.
“The only time he would light up even brighter was when he was talking about the folks in his family, his children and his grandchildren. He couldn’t be prouder of them. And he would talk about his wife, Janet, and he would stop and say to me, ‘You know, I am so lucky. She gets more beautiful every year.’ And I couldn’t help but think wow. What else could a spouse want than that?
“He revered her. He really did.”
Getting back to Dr. Dardik as a doctor, “he looked at the whole patient,” Mr. Geller said. “He is a vascular surgeon by training and expertise, but he was the go-to physician who was sent the cases that other doctors just can’t figure out.
“He is just so multidimensional. He was a patient advocate. And he loved to joust. Nobody loved to get their way more than him. If he believes in something, if his heart is set on it, he will fight to the end of the earth for it.”
Mr. Geller said directly what other people had hinted at. Dr. Dardik could be formidable. “One of the first meetings I ever had with Dr. Dardik — and I have only ever called him Dr. Dardik, never Herbert or Chaim — he was looking for additional resources for one of his teaching programs. I had just gotten to the hospital; it was 2009. We were going back and forth about the resources. He is stating his case, and I am listening, but not necessarily agreeing.
“He is becoming more and more frustrated, to the point where he pounds his fist, turns red, and storms out of my office.
“At that point, one of my colleagues says to me, ‘You are going to be the recipient of one of his white papers.’ ‘What is that?’ I asked, and he just smiled and said ‘You’ll see.’
“Two days later, I get a seven-page single-spaced typed case statement about everything the department of vascular surgery needs to be on the cutting edge today, and more importantly to stay on the cutting edge for the future.
“It was backed up by journal citations and research and data. So I read through it, and I went to his office — to his turf — to speak with him about it. I didn’t give in. I said that I was willing to have a discussion. We went back and forth and negotiated and compromised, and at the end of the meeting, he looked at me and smiled and said, ‘You are going to be a good one. You are a formidable opponent, and I like that.’ And he smiled.
“It was very funny and very telling, and we had an excellent relationship after that.”
Dr. Dardik — who did not die of covid-19 but from a variety of illnesses that predated the virus’s presence — is survived by his wife, his three children, and eight grandchildren; by programs and ideas and patients and colleagues who loved him and learned from him, by a Jewish community that benefited from his presence, and by a world that is better for his having lived in it.