Thursday, December 25, 2014

Hula Dancer on a Square of Flesh: Scene from my Father's Medical Education


" . . . dismiss whatever insults your own soul"
                                               --Walt Whitman

I often hear people mention that "a lot of doctors are poets." The list begins confidently with William Carlos Williams. It often ends there. My interest in Narrative Medicine moves from another list, the list of doctors who never wrote poems. At the top of this list is my father, an endocrinologist, a Fellow of The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. My father is a brilliant physician. His patients adore him. Though he is retired a decade now, his patients friend me on Facebook to ask me how he is feeling. We don't often ask how doctors are feeling. More often we accuse them of not feeling.

While my father is in assisted living in Sedona, we talk often about Narrative Medicine, me as the poet, he as the doctor. To summarily arc his career: he started in research and was happy there, teaching and discovering insulin's effect on adipose tissue under varying circumstances. Publishing ceased in the late 1970s, at which time he decided to move to the U.S. and enter private practice. He grew his success to multiple locations and real estate holdings and lost it over two decades, leaving the U.S. in 1992 and opening a single-examining-room office in Hamilton, Bermuda.

He wanted me to be a doctor. I knew I could not. We fought about it. In that argument I threw a Royal Doulton coffee cup at his head. I missed by a centimeter. Ten years later I reconsidered and told him I would leave my MFA in Poetry program to study Medicine. This time, he argued:
"Don't do it. Poetry is the superior means of finding the truth."

I didn't withdraw from the MFA program. Another fifteen years later, I am developing the field of Narrative Medicine, a practice whereby doctors are trained to develop empathy by engaging literature. My father is my greatest ally. For years, I felt that I needed to justify poetry to him. Now, though, we justify medicine to poetry.

Poetry and Medicine both heal, one the soul, the other the body. Our fields have always connected by an obscure parallax. How far apart we were can only be perceived by blinding oneself in one eye momentarily, but we are connected. Now I talk with him to learn how he learned to be a doctor then I follow up with an email asking him about the story he has told.  He told me the other day the story about his first day at University of Toronto College of Physicians and Surgeons when one of the more advanced students stood in the hall stretching a "square shape" which as my father got closer he realized was a large piece of flesh cut from a dead person's stomach featuring a tattoo of a Hulu dancer, making it "dance." I wrote after:




Hi Dad,

I'm excited about our writing project. I'm going to ask you questions about your medical school experience to begin. I know the story of the tattooed flesh cut from the cadaver's belly. But I don't know how you felt as you walked down that hall. It was your first day. You see a more-senior student, or just a person down the hall . . .

Can you tell me your thoughts as you discovered what this was?
What did seeing this "do" to your ideas about medical school. It's a bit horrific to someone who hasn't been in medical school.

Love,
Laura

When we spoke today he told me he had never thought about this. He referred to John Irving's Door in the Floor, paraphrasing the writer's task as being one of paying attention. He said that a physician's task is to get information and "get out of there." He told me he was astonished by my three-dimensional thinking. I had to check the email I had sent to see if we were talking about the same thing. I wasn't aware I was being three-dimensional or astonishing. I was asking how he felt
"I mean, wouldn't seeing something like that insult your soul?"
"Insult your soul. That's Whitman, isn't it?"

I remember the first time I heard my father deliver an order to disconnect a patient's life support. We the family were gathered for supper when his beeper beeped. He dialed the hospital using the phone on the kitchen wall. I could hear him.

"Is the family gathered?"
Silence as person at hospital replies.
"Okay, then. Go ahead."

Then, he sat down and continued eating. I knew what had just happened. I stood and walked to my room. He followed.

"How could you just sit down after that?"

He told me the story of the first patient he "lost." He was devastated. His attending physician told him that he could choose to either be devastated each time a patient died or he could choose to be a doctor. That was the lesson. My father chose the latter. Hearing the story helped somewhat. We both returned to supper.

"Yes, Dad, it's Whitman."

"Did it insult my soul? If it did I never thought about it."
  
I told him I didn't think my questions were that astounding, that I thought they were the most obvious questions to ask. 

"No, don't sell yourself short, kid."

I have always sold myself a little bit short. It started the night the coffee cup shattered against the plaster of the dining room wall. It started when I chose to be a poet instead of a doctor. 

Now, to think that my consideration of seeing a human being holding another part of another human being (with a cartoon image of yet another human being inked upon it) in a joking, detached manner is unique or amazing, I would have to think that my father and I approach life from two extremes. Is it possible? Would others not be mortified by this image? Is poetic reasoning so different from clinical as to effectively render such a sight readable as two very separate texts?  One seeing it as okay and acceptable? The other seeing it as a horrendous and vile act?

The conversation ends with no judgment or even answers. And will continue.


4 comments:

Lara Lynn Lane said...

Brilliant as ever Laura I so enjoy reading your work because your spiritual terrain is enormous and we can count on you to anchor us and guide us gentlystrong through the tough stuff. --Lara Lynn Lane

Harlan Gradin said...

As always, Laura, you are amazing in all the ways amaze can be defined. Your family ia quite remarkable and your stories reveal, move, and press the spaces of comfort. Thank you, Love, Harlan

akmal niazi khan said...

Thank u so much for having such a nice and entertaing stuff for us. I really enjoy your blog and the way you have describe your content.I also have some amazing and wonderful stuff and i wana to share it with you.
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Sancia Garrison said...

Dear Laura,
I am so very heartened to know that you and your father are working on a project together. He was a brilliant doctor and a brilliant man...with such compassion and love for others. He is loved by his many friends and patients.
As a friend of his for many years, I know how very deeply he loved (loves) you.
I am so happy for both of you.
Sending my fondest wishes.