Based on his book of the same name, Shulman helped kids overcome anxiety about going to the doctor. In hundreds of appearances, using oversized props, young volunteers and sublime silliness, he spoke against smoking and in favor of immunization.
“My overall philosophy is that we all won the lottery,” Shulman told the Emory Wheel student newspaper in 2013. “That one sperm hitting that one egg gave you the dash of life. I think that we all should just help each other have a long, happy, healthy dash.”
Shulman was both a madcap entertainer, willingly playing the fool to get people to take better care of themselves, and a serious researcher, publishing in medical journals. He wrote more than 30 books, most famously the novel “What?... Dead Again?,” which was adapted into the 1991 movie “Doc Hollywood,” starring Michael J. Fox.
Neil Shuman died Nov. 6, 2023, in Fountainview Center for Alzheimer’s Disease in Atlanta. His wife Zoe Haugo said he died of sepsis but had dementia for several years. He was 78 years old.
“He loved connecting with people and joking with people right up to the very end,” said Haugo. “Lots of people visited and he had that twinkle — that sparkle in his eye remained.”
“He was always on, always making connections between people,” said longtime friend and colleague P.K. Beville, founder of the Atlanta nonprofit elder care organization Second Wind Dreams, who co-authored the comic novel “Second Wind” with Shulman.
“When you had lunch at his house in Decatur, he would open a can of peas and eat them cold out of the can and continue to move. That’s a good description of who he was.
“He was a lot, which is said with a great deal of respect,” said Beville.
Shulman was born March 18, 1945, in Washington, D.C., the son of Israel Sonnie and Mary Shulman. Even as a child, recalled his brother Stan Shulman, “Neil was laser focused on writing, creating and then transforming his work into an energy that inspired and enlightened.”
He graduated from George Washington University in 1967 and moved to Atlanta to study at Emory University School of Medicine, earning his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1971 and becoming a professor there.
He was an expert in hypertension, especially among Black people in both urban and rural settings, and published more than 50 research papers. He co-founded the International Society on Hypertension in Blacks in 1986.
“Throughout his lifetime, Neil was committed to advocating for those who were unable to afford quality health care,” Stan Shulman said at the memorial service Nov. 9.
“He just had this big heart. He was an advocate for all kinds of people,” said Dr. John Stone, a former Atlantan whom Shulman encouraged to go to medical school at age 37.
Stone recalled that an Ethiopian immigrant who was a valet parking cars at Emory Hospital once told Shulman about his difficulties getting treatment for his leukemia; Shulman went to bat to get the man the medical help he needed based on that one encounter.
Shulman met his wife, Zoe Haugo, in 2001; their son Myles was born in 2006. His wife and son helped with many of Shulman’s projects, including live shows, video productions and book publishing.
Shulman and another famous physician/clown, Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams — played by Robin Williams in a 1998 movie about the man — toured together in a comedy show, “Laughter is the Best Medicine.” Proceeds went to Adams’ nonprofit organization, the Gesundheit! Institute, which worked to improve health in communities in crisis. Shulman served as chairman of the board of the institute.
He founded the International Medical Volunteerism Conference, later renamed the Global Health and Humanitarian Summit, at Emory University, and helped start the Heart to Heart Program, which brought children from developing countries to the United States for heart surgery.
He spun off the “Doctor’s Bag” approach for children into a series on Georgia Public Broadcasting, “Doc Neil the Banana Peel” for pre-school and elementary audiences. They can be seen on Youtube.
He is survived by his wife Zoe, son Myles, and brothers Stan and Larry Shulman.
A graveside service was held Nov. 9 at Arlington Memorial Park in Sandy Springs. The family said charitable donations may be made to www. secondwind.org.