The Stranger Who Changed My Life: The Taxi Driver and the Doctor

When a taxi driver asked one simple question, he transformed his family's future.

By Irving Stern from New York Newsday | for Reader's Digest magazine

That evening, sitting around the dining room table with my family,I pulled the scrap from my shirt pocket. “Robbie,” I announced proudly, “this could be a summer job for you.” He read it out loud: “Fred Plum, N.Y. Hosp.”

My wife: “Is he a doctor?”

My daughter: “Is he an apple?”

My son: “Is this a joke?”

After I nagged, cajoled, yelled, and finally threatened to cut off his allowance, Robbie sent off his grades the next morning. The fruit jokes continued for a few days, but gradually the incident was forgotten.


Two weeks later, when I arrived home from work, my son was beaming. He handed me a letter addressed to him on richly embossed paper. The letterhead read “Fred Plum, MD, Neurologist-in-Chief, New York Hospital.” He was to call Dr. Plum’s secretary for an interview.

Robbie got the job. After working for two weeks as a volunteer, he was paid $40 a week for the rest of the summer. The white lab coat he wore made him feel a lot more important than he really was as he followed Dr. Plum around the hospital, doing minor tasks for him.

The following summer, Robbie worked at the hospital again, but this time, he was given more responsibility. As high school graduation neared, Dr. Plum was kind enough to write letters of recommendation for college. Much to our delight, Robbie was accepted at Brown University.

He worked at the hospital for a third summer and gradually developed a love of the medical profession. As college graduation approached, Robbie applied to medical school, and Dr. Plum again wrote letters attesting to his ability and character.

Robbie was admitted to New York Medical College and, after getting his medical degree, did a four-year residency specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.

Dr. Robert Stern, the son of a taxicab driver, became OB-GYN chief resident at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.

Some might call it fate, and I guess it was. But it shows you that big opportunities can come out of ordinary encounters—even something as ordinary as a taxi ride.


Irving Stern, 92, still lives in Brooklyn. Robbie—now Dr. Robert Stern—and Dr. Plum exchanged Christmas cards every year until Plum’s death in 2010. Dr. Stern is currently an OB-GYN specialist at Health-Quest Medical Practice in Fishkill, New York. His son is a cardiologist; his daughters are an endodontist and an attorney. “This may all be due to Dr. Fred Plum, whom I will never forget,” he says. 

Rob Howard

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