Quietly caring for the sick

N.P. Zarzar loved psychiatry, family

October 1, 2009 

— Psychiatrist N.P. Zarzar was working rounds at Raleigh's Holly Hill Hospital when a staff member alerted him, "Your patient isn't eating."

Instead of telling the staff member how to handle it, Zarzar fed the patient himself.

"And the patient ate," Zarzar's son, David, says. "Dad didn't mind at all; whatever it took to care for them."

Zarzar tended North Carolina's mentally ill with a gentle hand and attentive manner for more than 40 years.

He also inspired his three sons to become psychiatrists.

Born Nakhleh Pacifico Zarzar in Bethlehem, Zarzar did a residency at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1956. He was superintendent of John Umstead and Dorothea Dix hospitals, then state commissioner for mental health before going into private practice in 1977.

Zarzar was a compassionate mental health advocate, a legacy he left to his sons, Michael, Nicholas and David Zarzar, when he died on Aug. 1 at age 77.

"You want to know my husband's personality? Look at those three," says Zarzar's wife Doris, 71, pointing to her sons, with their father's thick eyebrows and olive skin. "Quiet, cheerful, never a harsh word. He always said, 'There's always good in everyone.' "

Yet, Zarzar didn't push his sons into psychiatry.

"He was never one to say you have to do this or that; what he did show us came through in the way he lived," Michael, 51, says.

"Growing up down the street from Umstead, we had experience with people who were mentally ill," Nicholas 49, says. "It wasn't foreign."

"My dad just always seemed to really enjoy what he did," David, 44, says.

Zarzar often left his sleeping family to check on Umstead patients at night. One morning, instead of trying to get down his icy driveway, Zarzar persuaded the Raleigh police to take him to work.

Stuck in the hospital after a stroke in 1995, Zarzar once told his own doctor that he needed to go up one floor to consult on a patient.

"And he wasn't joking," David says. "He was serious."

Zarzar remained committed to public psychiatry. As state commissioner, and later while in private practice, he spent Thursdays consulting on cases in Henderson.

"He took care of people," Michael says. "That was his philosophy: proper treatment."

Michael joined his dad's practice in 1990; Nicholas started in 1992; David, in 1997. They continued after Zarzar retired in 2000.

"Even when he went [to part time], the days he was in the office seemed calmer," Nicholas says. "His voice and presence were reassuring."

Zarzar had the same zest in and out of the office. He was a proud Rotarian, who played the accordion and loved gardening, chocolate and clipping coupons.

He was also a UNC basketball fan who loved a good joke. He once teasingly welcomed David's future wife, Angela, to the family by handing her the dinner bill.

Unable to hug his seven grandchildren in his final days, Zarzar reassured them he was giving them the royal treatment instead, pressing kisses into their hands.

Zarzar developed empathy while growing up amid discord in the Middle East.

At 15, he was working in the family pharmacy when a Sudanese soldier put a gun to his head and insisted he tend to an injured comrade.

At 16, and sick at home one day, his school bus was bombed.

Working for the Welfare League for American University of Beirut, Zarzar, the medical student, met Doris, the nursing student. He asked her to help tend to earthquake victims in the city. They married in 1957.

"He hated to see people mistreated," Michael says. "We found out [after he died] that he helped a lot of people come to the U.S. We never knew. ...

"It surprised us in the sense that we'd never heard about it. But we also weren't surprised. It fit him."

luciana.chavez@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4864

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