NEW YORK — As a medical student, Dr. Harold Bornstein wore his hair long, sat in the back of class, and wrote poetry under the pseudonym “Count Harold.” He was, in other words, unconventional well before he wrote Donald Trump’s now-infamous health letter.
Now, Bornstein is a gastroenterologist who practices just steps from Park Avenue, where doormen mill about and doctors in white coats rush up and down the street. His office sits on the corner of East 78th Street, on the first floor of a brown-brick apartment building where studios list for a million bucks.
Bornstein is in the spotlight for his role as Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s personal doctor. So far, everything America knows about Trump’s health comes from a four-paragraph letter Bornstein wrote in just 5 minutes, according to his recent interview with NBC.
The letter, which said Trump would “be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” has been met with widespread ridicule.
“I don’t think anybody can read this as a statement of fact because it’s kind of patently ludicrous,” Dr. G. Kevin Donovan, the director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, told STAT.
Bornstein has mostly kept to himself since releasing the letter. But in interviews with STAT, many former classmates and patients have portrayed him as a caring and knowledgeable doctor who, nonetheless, harbors some oddball tendencies.
Bornstein graduated from Tufts University School of Medicine in 1975 and spent most of his career practicing in Manhattan. He’s 69 years old, according to public records — just a year shy of Trump himself. The doctor has steered clear of talking about the businessman’s campaign, telling NBC, “I like Donald Trump because I think he likes me.”
He did not return STAT’s phone calls in recent months and once responded “Please stop this nonsense!!!” to an email. His website, once functioning normally, now redirects to an online store that sells a “diabolical, annoying teddy bear.” He purportedly asked a Huffington Post reporter to pay him $325 an hour for an interview. In the interview with NBC, Bornstein slumped forward over his desk, gazing downward, with glances upward when he answered questions.
Decades ago, however, Bornstein was just another student in a Boston medical school, who laughed and joked with his friends while making his way through lectures and rotations. Medical school was taxing — for the first two years, Bornstein and classmates spent 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, in the classroom, a classmate recalled. Bornstein would sit with a group of friends during the lectures.
“He had long hair. He was irreverent. He sat mostly near the back of the room — where most of us did — and paid varying degrees of attention to what was being said at the time,” said Dr. Edward Hurwitz, who was friendly with Bornstein in medical school.
That didn’t stop him from excelling as a student. Dr. Mary Davenport, part of the gang of friends, said that Bornstein did well in school. “I think it was easy for him,” she said.
He composed fabulist poems for fun, like “The Magnificent Ten,” which is “The Second in a Series of Epic Poems by Count Harold.” A classmate provided STAT a copy of the poem, which was based on the friend group’s real-life outing to a wrestling match in November of 1972.
In the poem, “ten strange souls” who had “waited for weeks” scored seats “five rows from the action.” They “screamed for blood” as the wrestlers grappled. By the end of the poem, “the Ten” agree to return in a month for the Roller Derby.
The poem is signed “Count Harold” in blue marker.
Hurwitz said that poetry was a regular habit of Bornstein’s. “He wrote strange poetry and gave [it] out to people,” Hurwitz said.
After graduating, Bornstein eventually joined his father’s practice in Manhattan. Bornstein’s father, Jacob, graduated from Harvard Medical School in the midst of World War II. In the 1970s, Jacob lived at one point on Edgerton Boulevard in Jamaica, a neighborhood of Queens, according to public records — a three-minute walk from Trump’s boyhood home.
Bornstein the elder cared for Trump’s medical needs up until 1980, according to Bornstein the younger’s letter, at which point the son took over from the father.
Former classmates attest to Bornstein’s good character and medical skills. Dr. Ted Butler, who also attended Tufts with Bornstein, described him as “thoughtful, caring, [and] considerate.” At a reunion last year, Butler said that Bornstein spoke about making house calls to elderly patients. Hurwitz said that Bornstein gave him job leads when the former was down on his luck.
“He’s a really good doctor,” agreed one of Bornstein’s former patients, Glen Edelstein, who works as a teacher. “The problem is, he’s a very moody doctor.”
Edelstein used to joke with his family about Bornstein’s moods, he said. “If he’s in a bad mood, you don’t want to talk to him,” Edelstein said. “He’s grouchy and argumentative. Sometimes he’ll get distant, staring at his computer and forgetting you’re sitting in the office with him.”
But he was smart, Edelstein said — even smart enough to know when he didn’t have the answer to a medical question. “He’s the first doctor I knew who actually admitted, ‘I don’t know,’” Edelstein said. Bornstein would then pull out a book and look up the answer with Edelstein in the room.
Edelstein knew that Trump was also a patient of Bornstein’s — in the doctor’s office, he said, there’s a photo of Bornstein and Trump together.
And as for his letter, Edelstein was not surprised, but he wasn’t happy with the way it looked either. “It was inappropriate,” Edelstein said. “I think he’s a qualified doctor. I think he definitely knows his stuff.”
Davenport, one of Bornstein’s classmates, also was not surprised. “I thought, OK, that’s Harold, just being kind of witty or funny,” Davenport said. “That fit with what I knew of him,” she said.
She said that Bornstein always had a unique sense of humor.
“It was not easy to tell, sometimes, if he was serious or putting you on,” Davenport said. “That was just his personality.”