Best foot forward

JENICE ARMSTRONG / DAILY NEWS STAFF Smith gives advice to Jocelyn Guillen, a Temple podiatry student.
JENICE ARMSTRONG / DAILY NEWS STAFF Smith gives advice to Jocelyn Guillen, a Temple podiatry student.
Posted: October 29, 2013

AS A podiatrist, Dr. Maasi J. Smith knows a whole lot about scary - gangrenous cysts, bulging bunions, hammertoes so pronounced that they need surgery, icky fungal conditions and worse.

Not much freaks him out. He's cool, calm and unflappable, which I suspect is why he's attracted to the horror genre. Smith recently came out with the revised edition of his self-published suspense novel, Mischiefmakers.

It's an eerie tale about a young woman in Newark who's caught between reality and some sinister place. I picked it up recently and found that you don't have to flip that many pages before the characters are screaming in terror and a creepy voice shouts out, "I am the dragon whose angels shall descend upon your flesh like locusts. Lord of the black mass, I am vengeance and indulgence. I am undefiled wisdom, author of the black book! You mean nothing to me, animal, do not speak to me, ever, die!"

Ah, geesh.

It's not my idea of bedtime reading. I'm nervous enough as it is. I'd rather flip through the latest copy of O, The Oprah Magazine. But lots of people enjoy being spooked this way.

"I'm not sure exactly where all this stuff comes from," Smith said. "I'm not a conventional novelist. I wasn't an English major . . . I'm a foot doctor. That's what I do."

Smith first got the idea to write his book while taking a break from Temple University's School of Podiatric Medicine because it was "kicking my behind. I was, like, 'I'm gone.' Somebody told me to take a leave of absence."

So he moved in with his grandmother in Newark and planned to start an intense workout regimen so that he could "come back to school looking all cut up." But one day, during a snowstorm, he passed an abandoned building and Smith's vivid imagination kicked into overdrive.

"I thought to myself, Can I write this? I was curious if I could actually write what was in my head. That is how Mischiefmakers came about," he told me last week. "I really just typed for five months almost every day."

Like most first-time authors, he got a pile of rejection letters. But he kept at it, inspired by the late E. Lynn Harris, who sold copies of Invisible Life from the trunk of his car before finally getting a major publishing deal and landing on the New York Times best-seller list multiple times.

Smith self-published his book, sold maybe 100 copies - and wisely returned to podiatry school, determined to finish up this time around.

He graduated in 1999 and went on to run his own practice for a while and make a name for himself as a local foot-care expert. Smith currently is the chief of podiatry for Urban Health Initiatives, in South Philly.

I caught up with him last week, chatting with a group of students at his alma mater about everything from surgical procedures to being a self-published author and a media personality. I never thought a lecture about podiatry could be so lighthearted and entertaining.

From the way the students crowded around him afterward, shaking his hand and asking for personal and career advice, it was clear that they look up to him. Sunny Makhijani, 26, credits Smith with getting him through a difficult time when, he, too, was considering taking time off.

"I called him up and he told me, 'You know what? I went through the same thing. Do what you have to do. You can come back and be successful,' " said Makhijani, who wound up taking a semester off. "Now, I'm doing excellent. All A's and one B."

Stepping stones

As a kid growing up in Essex County, N.J., Smith never dreamed he'd be a doctor.

"The one thing I know for sure was that I was going to get out of Essex County," he said. "I thought I was going to get my biology degree and get a job."

But at Hampton University, the historically black college in Virginia that he attended, others in his field were applying to medical school, so he decided to give it a try. He settled on podiatry after happening across an article about patients' losing limbs due to diabetes.

"I was, like, wow, podiatry," he said. "I didn't think there were any black people in podiatry."

The rigor of study needed to graduate was jarring.

"Even though it's podiatry, this is a medical program. It's no joke," Smith said.

From 2001 to 2011, he was in private practice at the Rittenhouse Foot & Ankle Associates. Along the way, he also started his own line of foot-care products and began making media appearances. In 2011, he joined Urban Health Initiatives, on South Broad Street, where he sees roughly 15 patients a day.

The father of two daughters, he recently divorced and found himself taking a hard look at his life. His conclusion? "Let me get back to what I truly love."

"I just wanted to kind of reinvent myself," Smith said. "I think everybody does. Some women cut their hair when they get divorced."

For him, reinvention means delving back into writing and promoting the result. It's easier now thanks to social media. Smith's next project? A book about natural foot-care.

"I still want to get out there. I'm still trying to be this big-time foot doctor. I still want to promote foot health," he said. "I love being a foot surgeon."


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

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