BELFAST, Maine — For Jill Weber, it’s the kind of memory that time can’t erase.
It was Thanksgiving morning in the early 1990s, and her asthmatic daughter had spent a hard night struggling to breathe. Worried, and wondering if it was time to head to the emergency room, Weber called their family pediatrician, Dr. Dana Whitten of Belfast, during his morning call hour to ask his opinion. Still, she wasn’t optimistic that the doctor would answer the phone on a holiday.
She was wrong.
Whitten answered, heard her story and told her she didn’t need to go to the emergency room.
“‘Give me an hour to get my turkey in the oven, and I’ll meet you at the office,’” Weber, who now lives in Bar Harbor, remembered him saying. “We met, he provided a nebulizer treatment and some meds, and off we went to our respective homes for our feasts. I shall treasure that act of kindness forever.”
Whitten, who cared for many of the children of Waldo County — and their children — for more than 40 years, was that way: warm, compassionate and always available. When kids or their parents needed him, he was there. His death last week at 81 after a short illness marks more than just the loss of a man beloved in his community. Whitten was the kind of doctor whose love for his patients and his habits of answering phone calls and diagnosing illnesses at the grocery store seem like a relic of a gentler, more old-fashioned day.
“Boundaries for him — there weren’t many,” his daughter, Beth Whitten, said. “Doctors today, you can’t actually ever talk to a doctor, if you want to call them. Our home number was in the book. People would call all the time. There was a story about him calling a mom through the night because her daughter had a high fever. Him calling them. That is just unheard of, I think.”
When Whitten arrived in Belfast in 1976 with his wife, Diane, and 3-year-old Beth, he was one of only five doctors — and the only pediatrician — at Waldo County General Hospital. He embraced being a small-town doctor, and in the early days would even barter for his services in lieu of money.
“He was just well-educated in everything and had a wonderful way with children,” David Crofoot, a general surgeon at the hospital who worked alongside Whitten for many years, said. “He was a big, round, jolly sort of guy. Kids looked at him and were just comfortable with him.”
Whitten and his wife, a nurse, worked together to build up the county’s only pediatric practice, Belfast Pediatrics, which continues to serve the community.
“He was taking care of mothers, and then their children and their grandchildren,” Crofoot said. “He took care of my children as newborns. He took care of the newborns of generations of people in town. He was just wonderful and steady. He was completely there for people. He was all in. I said something about it being more than just a job or a skill that you learn. It was a vocation.”
When he wasn’t working, Whitten loved sailing with his family, growing a huge vegetable garden at their home in Northport, curling with the Belfast Curling Club, traveling and more. When his wife died in 2011, it affected him deeply, according to his obituary.
But it’s his care and kindness at work that people such as Carrie Robinson of Searsmont will remember most. She was one of his young patients in the 1970s, and her mother always told the story of how Robinson peed on Whitten’s cream-colored fisherman’s sweater.
“My mom used to tell me, ‘I know that sweater cost more than my entire wardrobe at the time,’ but he didn’t care,” Robinson said.
Decades later, Whitten took care of her own daughter. That kind of continuity seems rare, and meaningful, she said.
“Knowing that that amount of caring served this community for so long — we got really lucky,” she said. “His family should definitely know that there are a lot of people grieving with them.”