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Dr. Steven Rachlin, performed difficult delivery on plane, dies at 71

Dr. Steven Rachlin, 71, of Old Brookville, died

Dr. Steven Rachlin, 71, of Old Brookville, died Monday in Manhasset. Credit: Rachlin Family Photo

Dr. Steven Rachlin was among the early practitioners of alternative medicine on Long Island, but he will probably be most remembered for an act of medical heroism far outside his specialty.

While on a flight to Disney World in 1994, Dr. Rachlin was called into service to perform a difficult delivery of a baby boy on the plane. He used a borrowed shoestring and a straw to accomplish the impromptu procedure, which made headlines around the world, said his wife, Jeanne Rachlin, 64.

"He saved both their lives," Jeanne Rachlin said of the mother and child. "People were clapping."

Dr. Rachlin, 71, of Old Brookville, died Monday in Manhasset of a heart attack, family members said.

Rachlin was a great lover of Long Island, as he enjoyed riding horses here, and he gave up more lucrative opportunities elsewhere to live and practice here, his wife said.

Born in Philadelphia, he and his family moved to Manhasset when he was about 14. The eldest of four boys, he developed a caring, protective side that he carried into his medical practice, said his daughter, Stephanie Munves, 36, of Manhattan.

"He always liked to help people," she said. "He was always a healer." 

At Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, he was a popular young man who wrestled on the school team. 

After graduating with a bachelor's degree from Syracuse University, he earned his medical degree in 1977 from the University of Bologna, Italy. There, he was exposed to the European style of medicine, which emphasized a more natural approach to healing, said Jeanne Rachlin.

He became a vegetarian in medical school and came to appreciate the healing value of vitamins, diet and exercise, she said. 

He performed his medical residency at Winthrop Hospital in Mineola, where he met his future wife on a blind date.

"For me, it was love at first sight," recalled Jeanne Rachlin, his wife of 37 years. They married about six months after they started dating.

After a few periods of working with other physicians, Rachlin, an internist, opened an individual practice in Plainview, mixing traditional medical arts with alternative approaches. In the early 1990s he was among a few practitioners of alternative medicine on Long Island, and had to listen to many critics of such theories, his wife said.

"He wrote prescriptions but he also focused on diet, believing that the body could heal itself," said Munves. "I remember eating a lot of organic food as a kid." 

His practice grew to where he had offices in Huntington and Roslyn.

In 1994, Rachlin had his 15 minutes of fame, his wife recalled, when the family boarded TWA Flight 265 for a Thanksgiving vacation in Orlando. After the plane reached its cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, a woman, seven months pregnant, bent over in pain and started hemorrhaging and having contractions, according to news reports at the time. 

Rachlin stepped forward to help, his wife recalled, even though the last time he had delivered a baby was 13 years before.

"He turned to me and said, "Tell them she's having a baby, and to turn the plane around,' " said Jeanne Rachlin. "He borrowed a shoelace to tie off the umbilical cord."

Rachlin realized the baby wasn't breathing, and turning purple. Two paramedics on the flight lent a hand, using a straw from a boxed fruit drink to suction fluid from the baby's lungs, and they could see the child begin to breathe on his own, his wife recalled.

"My adrenaline was flowing a hundred miles and hour," Rachlin told People magazine at the time.

News organizations across the country and beyond picked up the story. He was interviewed by Katie Couric on the Today Show and Joan Lunden on Good Morning America. Years later, a reality show called Rescue 911 flew the family to Hollywood so Rachlin could re-enact the incident, said family members.

"He loved watching that on YouTube," said Munves.

Beyond his wife and daughter, other survivors include daughters Aimee Peyster and Amanda Rachlin, both of Old Brookville; stepson, Frank Smookler, of Brookville; brothers Harvey Rachlin, of Westchester, and Craig Rachlin, of Los Angeles; and three grandchildren. 

The funeral service was Friday at Gutterman's Funeral Home in Woodbury, and he was interred at Pinelawn Cemetery.

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