MISSION HILLS — Sitting in the cluttered quarters of what will become her new office, Dr. Gloria Hierro searches for the words she will say to the man whose pediatrics practice she inherits Friday.
"I hope he won't slip out quietly," she says of Dr. Konrad Ulich, who will conclude a career that spanned more than 40 years when he bids goodbye to the staff of Facey Medical Group.
With only a few days remaining as colleagues, however, Hierro acknowledges the moment will arrive too soon.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to say," she says at last. "I just know that it's going to be difficult."
More than just one doctor's retirement, it is also the passing of a torch--Ulich was Hierro's pediatrician and the indirect inspiration that motivated her to practice medicine.
"It's destiny," she says. "It's somebody telling me, 'This is the position you need to take.' "
For Ulich, 71, it's a welcome opportunity to relax and to travel.
"They can manage without me," he says humbly.
For his wife, Gisela, 70, a psychiatrist at Facey who is also retiring this month, it's also an opportunity to finally sleep through the night.
"One of my colleagues asked me, 'What will you do between 2 and 4 at night when the phone doesn't ring?' " she jokes.
Ulich was born in Dresden, Germany, the son of a professor who was eventually expelled from the country as a threat to Adolf Hitler's government.
Ulich remained in Germany and met Gisela while both were studying medicine in postwar Berlin. Married in 1951, the pair moved to America two years later, settling first on the East Coast. In 1956, they came to the still partially rural San Fernando Valley.
Thirty-nine years later, the citrus groves have given way to tract homes, but Hierro, 35, notes that some things haven't changed since she first started seeing Ulich as a toddler in the early 1960s.
"The pediatrics part looks exactly the same," she says of Facey's Mission Hills facility. "Even the bright orange rooms."
It was Hierro's older sister Martha who so admired the affable doctor that she vowed to follow in his footsteps, although her path swerved off to a gastroenterology practice in Santa Monica.
But even as a child, Gloria Hierro, too, was impressed with Ulich's calm, reassuring manner, so much so that she continued to see him years later while an undergraduate at UCLA.
"He explains things," she says. "He's not in-and-out."
Gisela Ulich, herself a former pediatrician, isn't surprised at the fondness her husband inspires. "He's rather fatherly," she says. "People feel protected and safe with him."
At a party for several retiring physicians held in the medical center last week, colleagues spoke warmly of years spent alongside Ulich, pausing to gently tease him about his daily lunch-hour naps and German accent.
" 'Don't vorry about it,' " receptionist Margarita Villa says, repeating one of his familiar phrases.
Ulich didn't remember Hierro when she accepted the job in May but says today that he's happy the practice will be in capable hands, citing Hierro's compassion and dedication.
"It's a nice feeling to know [it's] someone you know and you trust," he says.
To Dr. William Groves, Hierro's supervisor, it's the ultimate tribute. "If our patients grow up and emulate the physician, what better recognition can we have?" he asks.
Hierro, who chose medicine over a career as a teacher, says that "to help a human being is the most satisfying thing in the world." She hopes that perhaps someday one of her patients will be inspired as she was.
And while she's planning to follow the example of a beloved doctor whose career helped shape her own, Hierro says there's one tradition she won't be carrying on--naps.
"I haven't taken naps since I was a little girl," she says. "There's too much to do during lunch."