About Catherine Cheng, MD

I am a general internist in Chicago, Illinois, mother of two, almost native Coloradan, and Northwestern alum. I want to leave the world better for my having lived, by cultivating the best possible relationships between all who know me, and all whom I influence. Join me on this crazy, idealistic, fascinating journey! Look for new posts on the 10th, 20th, and 30th of each month. Opinions posted here are entirely my own, and in no way reflect the opinions or policies of my employer.

Unloading the Primary Parent

My friends:

These are the alarms I get to silence as we go on spring break.

There will be much movement and stress while traveling in the coming week. I must call forth every skill for self-awareness, self-regulation, and effective communication I have ever learned. Oh and some self-compassion and good humor will also help.

But at least I can put down the phone for longer intervals, and enjoy some quality time with the family.

I’ve downloaded some new romance audiobooks and packed lots of pretty paper and colored pens. I will sleep in every day if possible. I’m ready!!

Wishing you all a beautiful, peaceful, and connecting start of spring. See you on the other side of jet lag!

Time, Books, Bread, and Love

What is/are your love language/s?

According to Gary Chapman’s popular book The Five Love Languages, mine are, in order: quality time, words of affirmation, receiving gifts, physical touch, and acts of service. Since learning the framework, I have observed for Husband’s and Kids’ languages, and become more fluent in a few of their respective dialects. Some are easier to pick up than others! It’s humbling to think how friends and family may feel rejected by me when I respond sideways to their bids for love, because I don’t understand their intent. “Rats!” as friend Eileen would say. I can do better!

On the other hand, how wonderful when I can converse in love speech with someone in appreciation and joy? Words are definitely my currency–quality time for me means being together talking, and not just about pop culture and current events. I consider any thoughtful or personal verbal expression a gift, and especially anything via snail mail. I get positively giddy when I open the mailbox and see colored envelopes, interesting stamps, and omg stickers–it all just makes my heart sing.

Friend and fellow writer Nicole recently recommended the book Write For Your Life by Anna Quindlen. It’s a fast, easy, and heartwarming read by the veteran journalist and novelist. It validates my insatiable need to write–for myself and for sharing–and inspires me to do it with ever more abandon and joy. Quindlen reflects on the timeless relevance of Anne Frank’s diary, and our collective delight in finding old letters between lovers from the past. She wishes her parents left more words on paper, in their own hand, now that she can no longer connect with them in a tangible, tactile way. Even if you’ve never thought writing could stimulate, soothe, inspire, or connect you, this short work may convince you otherwise. Spending quality time with yourself and your thoughts, processing through pen on paper, may yield ideas, insights, and epiphanies that come no other way; and those who read them subsequently may benefit and connect to you in ways you cannot yet not imagine. So inspired was I after reading, that I bought multiple copies of WFYL and gifted them to friends. With each volume I selected a specific journal to go along. Pleather- and cloth-bound, blank, lined books invite original composition with artfully embossed covers: windblown trees; “Be the Change”; “ZEN AS F*CK”.

For my friend who took on a big new hairy leadership role, I included 6 additional works: The Art of Possibility, Benjamin and Rozamund Stone Zander; Switch, Chip and Dan Heath; Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert; Rising Strong, Brene Brown; Drive, Daniel Pink; and The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek. To the one who stands together with his wife at their respective professional crossroads, I accompanied Quindlen with John O’Donohue’s wisdom in To Bless the Space Between Us. His poems soothe, uplift, warm, and reassure, promoting reflection and also whispering, coaxing our own wisdom to emerge from within. Sharing others’ words, wiser and more eloquent than my own, is another way I love my friends.

When I can get the timing right, of course I also include some sourdough in the gift bag. Sven continues to thrive, leavening my loaves reliably for a over a year now. His heirloom flour descendant, whose products my gluten-intolerant friends can eat without consequence, has finally also developed that fruity aroma that I recognize as my starter. There is something special about giving and receiving gifts we make (or write) by hand, with our time, talent, and treasure. It’s just another level of love, expressed concretely and tangibly.

Nobody questions the value of sharing and expressing love between friends and family.

But what about between colleagues? Leaders and those they lead? Systems and their contingent members? What does it take to learn and attempt to speak anybody’s ‘love’ language? When we do personality tests at the office and find out who’s an introvert or extravert, who thinks versus feels their way to a decision, can we as leaders and coworkers make the effort to communicate–to relate–on another’s terms in addition to our own? I fail at this day after day; rats! I can do better!

In the end it’s about how we each feel seen, heard, understood, accepted and loved–why limit this essential and life-sustaining human reciprocity to ‘loved ones’? Better yet, why not include all with whom we are in any relationship among those we consider ‘loved‘? It may require quite a brave and committed redefinition of and reorientation to ‘love’, no? But how might this inspired shift in perspective, even by only a fraction of one degree, profoundly alter the course of business, healthcare, education, government–everything?

Three Years Ago Today

Where were you on February 25, 2020? What was happening around you? What were you doing, planning, looking forward to, worried about?

What day did COVID change your life?

On New Year’s Eve, 2019, my niece declared that everybody was overreacting to the infection sweeping across Wuhan, China. It won’t be a big deal, she said. I specialize neither in infectious disease nor public health, but I knew then that what was coming would be a big. fucking. deal.

This morning, stepping out into the bright sun and crisp air at the end of another unusually mild Chicago winter, Daughter and I recalled 3 years ago. We had just spent a long weekend in Seattle, just for fun. Son had said then that he could see himself living there ‘after school,’ and lo, he ended up there for school. Little did we know then that COVID had already landed, right there, where we were.

Within weeks, whole organizations and governments mobilized and immobilized; life mutated irrevocably around us everywhere. COVID hit me in the face by cracking one of my friendships early on. The week of March 9, I begged off of a gathering, and my friend was angry. I respected and admired her, and loved her family–still do. She subsequently railed at the prospect of lockdown and social distancing, citing economic fallout, apparently dismissing my alarm at the risk to our healthcare system, and my own colleagues, if we deferred such drastic measures. It took me by surprise, floored me, and I was hurt. I wanted to talk more about it, talk through it. But these three years, every time we approach our differences here, she respectfully declines to continue. I respectfully agree. We hit a boundary in our friendship then, which I accept. I can engage with difference elsewhere; there is no shortage of opportunities. Over this time I believe I have both sharpened and softened my communication skills around disagreement and dissent, and I’m still grateful for every chance to practice, learn, and improve.

Facebook showed me what I posted three years ago today. I don’t know which leader moved me to profess my appreciation on social media, but I bet it was one of two, so I emailed them both today with the screen snip of the post. “…recalling 3 years ago, watching and waiting for the pandemic wave to hit us, standing in a state of novel awe and uncertainty.  I also remember feeling confident, though; I understood the medical and public implications and trusted my immediate professional and personal circles to think and act rationally and thoughtfully… Our organization has its challenges, both intrinsic and extrinsic.  Each day, though, I’m still convinced and proud that everybody’s doing their best for the greater good. So Happy Saturday, and thank you for you leadership. 🙂” Having led a small practice through the first 14 months of the COVID morass, I suspect any sincere expression of acknowledgement and appreciation, at anytime, even now, boosts any leader’s spirits. We are all still going through it, and we still need to hold one another up.

This is the 42nd post that appears on a “COVID” search of this blog. I process by writing. Reading back, I apparently felt more fear and anxiety at the outset than I may remember. Memory is complex! Today I recall vividly the acutely discordant and uncomfortable conversations with my friend, while minimizing the overall stress of the time and circumstances? How fascinating. We would all do well to ‘remember’ this paradox of recollection as we continue to navigate, negotiate, and collaborate hereafter.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” Anna Quindlen includes this quote by Anais Nin in her book, Write For Your Life. Have you anything to review from three years ago–emails, letters, photos with captions, blog posts? What does any of it show you about your feelings, thoughts, actions, and relationships back then? How has your life evolved and transformed in the short and profound time since? How have your relationships moved? I’m gratified to take some time today to recall and reflect, and to have concrete evidence of myself to do it with.

Write on, my friends.