Do you have time in your doctors’ appointments to tell the story of your problem? Do you even think of it as a story? More and more I find myself saying to people, after they have given a list of symptoms in no particular order, “Tell me the story, starting from when you last felt well/normal.” Then it all comes out in an interesting narrative, often with new insights as to causes, connections, and exacerbating factors along the way.
Do you read more fiction or nonfiction? I have always been a non-fiction gal. I appreciated The Grapes of Wrath and devoured the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series, but usually I avoid novels. My favorite books this decade are The Art of Possibility, Rising Strong, Big Magic, Start With Why, and Give and Take. I realize now that these books are also full of stories—just real-life ones. I have tried to incorporate more stories in my writing, and I find it challenging and awkward. But I will keep trying, maybe take a creative writing class someday.
I have heard some amazing stories recently, and I will get some details wrong, but I want to share them with you, in case they touch you as they touched me.
A doctor attends a mindfulness workshop because he is interested in mind-body medicine and always looking for new methods to explore his inner world. Part of the workshop is a professional quality of life survey, on which he scores very high for compassion satisfaction and low for burnout. He says it’s because this is a second career for him.
He always wanted to be a doctor growing up. He was accepted to medical school in his home country, but his family could not afford it. So he stuck with science and went to school the cheapest way possible, and graduated with a biology degree. Over the years he got married and immigrated to the United States. He never forgot his dream of being a doctor, but progressed nevertheless in his graduate basic science studies. When he applied to allopathic medical school here in the 1980s, he was told that since his BS was from abroad and the class was already ‘culturally imbalanced,’ he would not be admitted.
He was offered a spot in an osteopathic school, however, and grabbed it. Meanwhile his wife was pregnant with their first child. He had to move away from her and his parents for residency, and while he was away his father died. Sometime in there his wife also started medical school, and they made it through training and the births of two children (with two weeks maternity leave each for her) intact. They are now both well-respected primary care physicians in a small outlying community. He is a physician educator and leader. They sit side by side at the dining room table on Sunday nights catching up on notes. They call these their “Epic dates.” [Epic is the name of a widely used electronic health record.] Both of their children are doctors. He never feels burned out; he is living his dream.
Another doctor, a leader in his field and his institution, and a black man, described everyday racism that most of us cannot fathom. A neighbor approached him on the beach of his own lake house, accusing him of trespassing. Passing drivers backed up to confront him at his mailbox, suspecting him of stealing some white person’s mail. A cop pulls him over around the corner from his suburban home in a nice neighborhood, asking, “What are you doing around here?”
A man in his 50s breeds guppies for fun. It started with his 5th grade teacher, who was his mom’s best friend. He used to go over to her house with his mom, and got interested in her guppy tanks. Now he has hundreds of his own tanks, and he knows everything there is to know about inbreeding, crossbreeding, guppy circadian rhythms, and where the world’s experts on guppy breeding live and work. Now I know this is a thing.
Mr. Rogers is quoted as saying, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” I wholeheartedly agree.