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Dr. Joshua Yasuo Suzuki drove muscle cars. Wore bow ties and suspenders. Foraged in the mountains for mushrooms and wild flowers. Delivered 5,000 babies. Practiced Zen philosophy. Made a mess when he cooked cioppino.
“I think he viewed himself like an adventurer, a wandering samurai, a cowboy,” said his son, Dan Suzuki. “My dad was very, very quirky,” added Ken Suzuki, another son. “I’ve never met anybody else like him.”
Raised in small-town Japan, Yasuo Suzuki immigrated to the United States as a young man to pursue a career in medicine. He picked up the name Joshua, made his home in Shoreline and, for decades, practiced as an obstetrician-gynecologist in Seattle. His jokes were notoriously bad. They cracked him up, his sons and friends said.
“He had this jocular laugh,” said Dr. Rick Agress, his partner at the Polyclinic. “You could hear him laughing through his door, across the hall.”
Dr. Suzuki died on April 19 from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. He was 78.
Born months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dr. Suzuki was too young to remember World War II. But his childhood was colored by the postwar U.S. occupation of Japan. His parents ran a store in remote Hizume.
“The American GIs would come into the store and he was stunned at their size,” Ken Suzuki said. “He kind of saw them as otherworldly … He was just taken by American culture — the people, the music, the cars.”
Dr. Suzuki wound an unlikely path from “the middle of nowhere” to Seattle, his son said. It began at a prestigious university in Sendai and continued at a U.S. Air Force hospital in Tokyo, where he served as a resident physician and met his first wife.
The Vietnam War was raging and only the military’s most seriously wounded soldiers were rushed to the hospital. Decades later, Dr. Suzuki would tell his son “about the American boys crying for their mothers.” Shaken by the experience, he chose to train as a OB/GYN partly because he knew delivering babies would make people happy, Ken Suzuki said.
To complete that training, Dr. Suzuki moved to the U.S., spending time in Connecticut and Ohio. “He bought an eight-cylinder muscle car,” Ken Suzuki said, “a Mercury Cougar.” Though Dr. Suzuki valued his roots, he was supremely proud to later become a U.S. citizen and “he deeply wanted to be seen as American,” Ken Suzuki said.
A mentor, who happened to be Jewish, suggested Dr. Suzuki adopt the name Joshua because it sounded a bit like Yasuo in Hebrew, his son said.
Seattle’s volcanic scenery made a deep impression on Dr. Suzuki when he visited for a medical conference. During a meal in the International District, he snagged a Japanese-community newspaper that mentioned a local doctor with his own (very common) surname. Boldly, he wrote the man a letter.
“He randomly asked this dude, ‘Could you help me get started in Seattle?’ and the dude wrote back, ‘C’mon out. I’ll introduce you to some people,'” said Ken Suzuki, a toddler at the time. “My dad was off to the races.”
Dr. Suzuki and his wife settled in Shoreline. They had three sons before they divorced. Dan Suzuki said he was close to his dad, and every other weekend Dr. Suzuki would clear his calendar so they could go bowling and hiking.
In the woods, they hunted matsutake mushrooms, which Dr. Suzuki would cook in the Japanese style. He knew how to distinguish between the precious specimens and another variety that he called “idiot mushrooms.”
“It was like a treasure hunt,” Dan Suzuki recalled.
Family time regularly would be interrupted by Dr. Suzuki’s hospital beeper. For a period, he handled about 25 deliveries each month, Agress said.
Dr. Suzuki took his work seriously, but he was a character, Agress noted. He smoked a pipe in his office and bantered with longtime patients. In 1993, he arrived to Swedish Medical Center on Super Bowl Sunday “wearing his Mickey Mouse bow tie,” one such patient wrote online. “He did ask that I deliver at a reasonable time, so that he could get back to watch the game!”
Another patient, Alana Morris, became friends with Dr. Suzuki. They and another friend (also a patient) all were dealing with divorces.
“She would have her checkup, and I would have mine … and then we three would go have sushi,” sometimes at Bush Garden in Seattle, Morris said.
Morris thought the unusual arrangement was hilarious. She also valued Dr. Suzuki as a listener. Later, he delivered her daughter. “He made us all laugh, but the thing I miss most about him is his support and his caring,” she said.
Dr. Suzuki married a second time, had a fourth son and divorced again. He lived in Wisconsin and returned to Japan, then moved back to Shoreline. Retirement provided him with more time to read and watch sports, and he became a doting grandfather. He studied French and visited Pike Place Market to buy fresh seafood.
When he contracted COVID-19, Dr. Suzuki was living at a memory-care community in Edmonds, having recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Ken Suzuki, who lives nearby, would visit him at least once a week. They’d go out to eat sushi. Sometimes, Morris would come along to see her cherished friend.
Dr. Suzuki was sick for about seven days. Before he died, his health care team let Ken Suzuki slip into his hospital room. “I was able to hold his hand,” the son said. “I told him we’d be sitting down to sushi together again soon.”
The pandemic ruled out a memorial service, but Dr. Suzuki’s sons have a plan. When the crisis has passed, they’ll bury some of his ashes in Hizume and with the rest they’ll hike up to Maiden Peak on the Olympic Peninsula.
“That was his favorite wildflower backpacking spot,” Ken Suzuki said.