June 2021

Mind Boggling

“Eleven years ago, I wasn’t as old as I am now—which is a funny thing!” Virginia Mitchell tells me.

She’s dressed as if she picked her clothes using yellow Benjamin Moore paint samples: bright canary shirt, mustard pants, daffodil leather shoes. Last week’s theme was purple, topped off with a violet scarf; another time it was green, accented with a chartreuse ascot.

Accepting the Things We Cannot Change

I enjoy working with adolescents and young adults who are in treatment for addiction because, despite their vulnerability, they are at an age where interventions have a reasonably high chance of being successful. Their genetic risk for addiction is something they cannot change, but they can modify their overall risk by changing their environment and carefully choosing their friends.

My Doctor

It was his first visit to a hospital–any hospital–since his birth in this one eighty years earlier, and the trip to the emergency department for blood in the urine soon escalated into a workup for bladder cancer. He became one of the most memorable patients of my medical school experience and, for that matter, my entire career.

Though so crotchety that some of the staff avoided him whenever possible, he and I always got along well.

A Path, Not a Battle

I grew up on a farm in Connecticut, went to college in Rhode Island, and have lived my entire adult life in small-town Vermont, so the mores of rural New England are deeply engrained in me.

That means Robert Frost’s poetry is part of my vernacular. (I own two hardcover copies of You Come Too, a collection of his most popular poems: one copy was printed the year I turned ten and bears my name on the flyleaf in childish script;

COVID Birdsong

Once I spent days, which became weeks, which become months, by myself in a small house in the village of Oshikango, Namibia. Two years prior, I had arrived there as a newly minted college graduate, eager to begin my new NGO job of teaching high-school science and HIV education.

It didn’t take long for the bubble of confident competence to burst.

Between Cancer and COVID

In late fall of 2020, rumors were buzzing around the hospital where I worked about a possible retirement buyout package. My supervisor and I sat in our large conference room discussing what we had heard. I said, “If the offer is decent, I will probably accept the package. I don’t want to work until I’m carried off the unit on a stretcher.” Then, with my usual humor, I chuckled and added, “I tried that once and it didn’t turn out so good.”

Jokes About Needles Are Probably Not Funny

For the biopsy my doctor ordered, I am clad in a pink hospital gown, strapped into a chair and wheeled to a machine designed to press my breast into a flesh-panini, then stick it full of needles which, lidocaine or no lidocaine, I feel.

The pain is so intense I would gnaw my own breast off with my teeth to never feel such pain again.

The “Good” Kind of Cancer?

Years ago, on my first rotation as a third-year medical student, I received a dreaded phone call. My father had arrived home late one night after work. As he entered the house, he tumbled down the stairs. His physician, worried that my dad had suffered a mini-stroke, ordered an ultrasound of the carotid arteries in the neck.

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