If I Get to Five What Children Can Teach Us About Courage and Character

Fred Epstein, M.D., and Joshua Horwitz

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

208 Pages



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Throughout his career as a pioneering pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Fred Epstein's young patients have been his most important teachers and trusted guides. In this inspiring book, Dr. Epstein's patients teach us the lessons we all need to learn in order to live life to the fullest—lessons about seizing the moment and facing our deepest fears, about holding someone's hand, and about embracing the joy and wonder of everyday life. Most of all, they teach lessons about uncommon courage—the courage to do what's hardest, to believe in what we don't understand, to love without fear and without boundaries.

If I Get to Five takes us inside a world unlike any other, from the high-stakes, high-tech O.R. where life and death are separated by a heartbeat to the sickrooms and recovery rooms where parents discover the limits and power of their faith. It also tells the inspiring story of Fred Epstein's life—from his struggles with severe learning disabilities as a child to his groundbreaking accomplishments as a surgeon. Recently, when Dr. Epstein suffered a traumatic brain injury and faced a daunting rehabilitation, the advice of the children he'd saved helped illuminate his own path to recovery. Most compelling of all, however, is the journey inside the hearts, minds, and souls of the wisest children you will ever encounter.

"We tend to think of children as fragile, little people," says Dr. Fred Epstein. "To me, they're giants." If I Get to Five is a tribute to the hidden strengths of childhood and the unstoppable life force that dwells within each of us.


Praise for If I Get to Five

"This book is a testament to the extraordinary depth, power, and resiliency of children's spirits. It is also a fresh reminder to all parents of what a precious gift each child is."—Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children's Defense Fund

"If I Get to Five is a magnificent tribute to human resiliency and hopefulness. From Dr. Epstein's portrayals of children who have found meaning amid horror to his own superbly interwoven autobiography of a boyhood marred by academic failure, we see the emergence of a truly great man. Readers will feel energized by this remarkable portrayal of life's uphill battles."—Mel Levine, M.D., author of A Mind at a Time

"Epstein, a pediatric neurosurgeon at New York City's Beth Israel Hospital, has written an inspiring book recounting the struggles of not only his patients, but himself as well. After a long career treating patients for brain injuries and cancer, Epstein recently had a near-fatal bicycle accident that turned the tables on him. Suddenly, the expert surgeon found himself on the receiving end of a scalpel. While the book touches upon his own challenges during the slow recovery and rehabilitation process, Epstein draws more upon the examples of his young patients to successfully banish fear from his life. He candidly examines the lives of not only those patients who have made brilliant recoveries under his care, but also the children who weren't so lucky. The book's title derives from words spoken by Naomi, a four-year-old whose brain tumor would eventually take two surgeries to eradicate. Though the child seemed to inherently understand the gravity of her situation, she made plans: 'If I get to five, I'm going to jump rope—backward!' Epstein and Horwitz handle topics such as hope and spiritual awareness gracefully, without being preachy, and the book should serve as an important tool for families or individuals coping with grave illnesses."—Publishers Weekly

"A four-year-old tumor patient inspired the title of Epstein's book as well as a new perspective on the lessons adults can learn from children about resiliency in the face of medical crises. Epstein drew on those lessons when he helped establish a neuroscience center at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and in the midst of his own personal crisis after suffering a head injury and brain damage. [In this book, he] details his journey from a surgeon fascinated by technology to one with a more humanistic approach, which he expresses through touching his patients, talking and listening to them more deeply, and using the wisdom and bravery he has learned from sick kids. He poignantly recalls cases of children who have helped their families deal with the trauma of brain injury even as they themselves have been the ones undergoing gruesome surgery and taxing rehabilitation. Epstein also includes letters and poems from children and parents, conveying the importance of faith and resilience. A truly inspiring book."—Vanessa Bush, Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

From If I Get to Five:

Surgeons have a tendency to compartmentalize their professional and emotional lives. We're trained to believe that we can best serve our patients by remaining objective professionals. With so much fear and anxiety...

Read the full excerpt


  • Fred Epstein, M.D., and Joshua Horwitz

  • Fred Epstein, M.D., is the founding director of the Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. He has served as president of both the International Society of Pediatric Neurosurgery and the American Society of Pediatric Neurosurgery. Epstein lives with his wife and children in Greenwich, Connecticut.

    Joshua Horwitz is the president of Living Planet Books, a book-packaging firm in Washington, D.C., where he lives with his wife and three daughters. He is the coauthor of a book about the book of Genesis, Wrestling with Angels.