UM psychiatrist Stephen Halpert transcended life-altering accident, dies at 72

Medical school is challenging. For University of Florida med student Edward Stephen Halpert, it carried a particular challenge.

In 1969, while studying for his medical degree, Halpert was involved in a motorcycle accident that rendered him quadriplegic.

“It was said that he couldn’t finish medical school, or who knows when, but he pushed and, with great tenacity, fought to prove he could and he accomplished that,” said family friend Leatrice Damus in an email to the Miami Herald. “Next was internship, residency, who would take him? Doctors and friends helped to convince the hospitals that he could do it and he did.”

Halpert, who died Feb. 18, four days short of his 73rd birthday, served more than 30 years at the University of Miami as a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry. The specialist on addictions joined the school in 1979.

In addition, Halpert was appointed medical director of the Recovery Center at UM/Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Highland Park Pavilion in 1990, where he treated patients suffering from addictions. Halpert also directed the substance abuse program at the Miami Veterans Administration and programs in maternal addiction and abused women. Simultaneously, he ran his private practice in South Miami.

“He empowered people,” said brother Fred Halpert. “He was determined and an incredibly smart guy.” The Pensacola-born Halpert, who earned his MBA at UM in 1999, had a clear communication style when discussing medical jargon. This ability allowed for him to reach his patients who were often dealing with complex issues. “He could easily have you understand something he was talking about.”

He was a major Miami Hurricanes fan!

Fred Halpert on brother, Dr. E. Stephen Halpert.

Fred Halpert was 10 years younger than his brother. But he said he saw these traits in Stephen at home, the same mannerisms that extended into his profession. “He was always out for people’s best and kind of like a protector,” he said. “He would take up your cause, whatever it was, to help you through it and help you come up with a decision and make it seem like you came up with the answer.”

Dr. Richard Steinbook, a University of Miami emeritus professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, was the training director during the time that Halpert worked at UM and the VA hospital. He recalls Halpert as a dedicated teacher and patient advocate.

“He was very inspirational to the medical students and residents with whom he came in contact,” Steinbook said. “Steve never allowed his disability to limit his participation or his opinion in the service of his patients. He remained a lifelong student of the human condition, always searching for the best treatment for his patient. He often had to ask for help and was never shy about doing so. It was a strength of his character that helped him succeed.”

Before UM, Halpert, a Coral Gables High graduate, was an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of South Florida from 1977 to 1979. Earlier, he served as director of psychiatric services at the Tampa Veterans Administration Medical Center.

“He had amazing insight and no time for superficiality,” said sister-in-law Debbie Mitchell. “Here is a man in a wheelchair for 50 years, from the age of 23 to 73, and everybody who spoke about him said the wheelchair was a nonevent. They never ‘saw’ Stephen in a wheelchair so that’s significant. Obviously, the wheelchair was a tremendous part of his life. But a couple people talked about dreams they had had of him over the years and he was never in a wheelchair.”

Halpert is also survived by his wife Cecelia and sister Debbie Franklin. Services were held. Donation in Halpert’s memory can be made to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.