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A Sacred Mission: Dr. Dietrich Jehle

10:04 AM, Feb 14, 2012   |    comments
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By Rich Kellman, Senior Correspondent

You might remember that fiery crash on September 4, 2009. It was on the I-190 southbound at Hamburg Street . Six vehicles were involved, one of them with the driver and two children trapped inside. Ironworker Mike Byham, on his mostorcycle, almost plowed into the wreckage as it was happening.  "I was praying there was nobody in the back seat," he recalls today.

More than a dozen motorists stopped to help, and  just by chance, emergency room specialist Dr. Dietrich Jehle from ECMC was among them. "I was thinking, 'we gotta get that kid out of there," he said then. 

"He's like, 'You're goin' through the back door, I'm gonna go up through the front door, and we're gonna pull until we get that kid free out of the car," Byham says.

They freed seven-year-old Asa Hill from the wreckage, but Asa died of his injuries the next day. We recently talked with Dr. Jehle, two and a half years after the crash. "You sometimes say, well could you have moved things along faster, could things have happened differently," Jehle says, "but I have a sense that the cards were already dealt there."

Jehle is associate medical director at ECMC. He has worked in the emergency room for more than 20 years. "I was fortunate to go into emergency medicine where you see people really at the critical point in time," he says. "They put their trust in you, not knowing who you are. It is really an unusual privilege to have."

How did he become so dedicated to saving lives? To a great extent he credits his father. "Dad was one of my heroes," he says.  For one thing, his father, Herbert Jehle was an accomplished pianist and composer. The son recalls, "Dad would get together with (Albert) Einstein, and Einstein played the violin, and dad would play the piano and they particularly liked old German composers, Bach in particular."

His father was born in Germany in Stuttgart, 1907. He became a physicist and mathematician. That's how Herbert Jehle came to know the now-legendary Albert Einstein. "These are actually lecture notes of albert Einstein." He pages through Einstein's pamphlets. "Field theory, relativity... in fact there are two letters over there that are originals." Laid out on the kitchen counter in Jehle's home are letters from Einstein to Dietrich's father, warning of the dangers of nuclear war.  "'If those who see the light do not stand honestly and courageously for the good," Jehle reads,  "'the world will get deeper and deeper into the morass. With friendly greetings, yours, Albert Einstein."

There are other letters, too. From Dr. Herbert Hauptman of Buffalo, scientist Linus Pauling, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry and peace. There's also a thank-you note from one of the world's greatest physicists, Richard Feynman. "He thanked my father for an insight he gave him during an informal conversation," says Jehle, "And that led to him receiving the Nobel Prize in physics."

Perhaps the most meaningful of all is a bible from German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. "He he was one of Dad's good friends," says Jehle. "I was named after Dietrich Bonhoeffer."

Bonhoeffer spoke out against the Nazis. Herbert Jehle. refused to work on German weapons systems. Bonhoeffer was executed after taking part in a failed attempt to kill Hitler.  Herbert Jehle was sent to a work camp as an enemy of the government.

He was able to leave Germany for the united states in 1941. Here, Herbert Jehle married and continued his work as a scientist. But he and his wife also listened to their conscience. "There was true segregation in the late 50's," Dietrich Jehle tells us. "The bathrooms were labeled 'colored' and 'white.' Growing up in Nazi Germany, my mom had vivid memories of Kristallnacht and riding her bicycle home and watching the Jewish shops burn."

So his mother and father took action. Dietrich remembers, "My parents were involved in integrating restaurants and civil rights marches and introduced me to Martin Luther King in 1963. My mom and dad thought it was very important we supported what America was, really, true rights for everybody."

The crash on the 190 two and a half years ago did take the life of a young boy. But Asa Hill's parents were thankful that two others in their family, in that car that day, were saved. And they were able donate Asa's organs, and save others in need. 

We asked rescuer Mike Byham, "Do you ever think of the little boy, Asa Hill, from time to time?"

"Yeah," he replies, "every time I ride down the 190."

And in the emergency room at ECMC, you could say that the spirit of dietrich jehle's father and mother lives on in him. "mike: he's quite a guy, I have to say that much," says Mike.

But Dr. Jehle says he doesn't consider himself anything special. "Some of these other folks (like Mike), they're heroes. I'm doing what I do for a living." But he'll tell you ... in confidence, that for him, it's a sacred mission. "It's really an unusual privilege to have," he says.

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