Only Connect

It was 5:00 pm in the intensive-care unit, and my team and I had just wrapped up our interview with elderly Ms. Armijo, who was in critical condition after emergency abdominal surgery.

Exhausted after a long day, we headed for the door, the ICU machines and monitors beeping their goodbyes.

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The White Orchid

Leaving my office this evening, I see the white orchid’s last petal struggling to hold on. With its faded grey veins and withered brown edges, it looks like a bit of old, crumpled paper. Even the sunlight streaming through the window doesn’t brighten it. Tenderly, I reach down to touch its softness.

The touch transports me back to when I first met Shirley, who gave me the orchid. I remember it vividly.

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On Hateful Things

This essay is modeled after Sei Shonogun’s list “Hateful Things” from her tenth-century classic The Pillow Book. She listed everything she hated about being a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress, ca. 966-1017.

I wrote my list as a family physician working in community health centers, ca. 2005-2020. As our nation grapples with endemic racism while also facing the COVID pandemic, my trials and tribulations may seem trivial–but they also reflect a broken medical system that badly needs fixing, for everyone’s sake.

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The Masked Asian Psychiatrist

About three months ago, I had a Definitely Racist Interaction at work. A patient—we’ll call him Allan—said to me: “I’d like a white doctor. Is there a white doctor available?”

Allan’s voice was even, but his attitude was provocative, as if he were testing me. I felt a flash of fury, but kept my face expressionless. Presumably the surgical mask I wore also helped to hide my feelings.

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My Chiaroscuro Moment

From a young age, I aspired to enter the nursing profession. Beginning my career, in the late 1970s, I scarcely imagined how many facets of health care I’d come to know–from human-subject research to healthcare law and bioethics–or what opportunities my career would bring.

One opportunity came in the early 1980s: I went to Rome to work as a nurse at a university. During that remarkable year, I took advantage of my location to learn more about Baroque art.

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A Question of Trust

Years ago, when I first joined the family-medicine faculty of the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), I spearheaded a project to build stronger connections with the surrounding communities, primarily made up of people of color and low-income individuals. Deepening our ties with these communities would, we hoped, give us more understanding of our patients’ health needs, and might help them to feel more receptive to our efforts.

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No One Ever Asked

Today I greet Mr. Williams verbally, which is very different for us; usually we say hello with a hug.

“Mr. Williams,” I say, “I’m not going to hug you today, with this pandemic.”

“I get that, Doc,” he answers, adjusting his mask; I can’t tell if he’s smiling or not.

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I Would Like to Call It Beauty

Gearing up for my night shift in the COVID-19 intensive-care unit, I don my personal protective equipment (PPE)–a white plastic air-purifying respirator (PAPR) hood. The hood connects via a tube to a large battery pack that I strap onto my waist over my scrubs. I turn on the battery and shiver when the rush of cool air blows past my ears. I walk into a bright white antechamber where a safety officer inspects me.

“You’re good to go,” she says. “Stay safe.”

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Life With Father

Life With Father

After forty-three years as a nephrologist-internist and teacher, I recently retired from medicine. This final stage of life is a time of reflection. Was I a good physician? On a more fundamental level, was I a good friend, husband and father?
Despite its many challenges, I have never regretted following my cherished vocation. There were far more rewards than regrets. By contrast, my record as a father feels a bit less exemplary.
During my first three decades as a physician, the prevailing professional ethos could best be described as “macho medicine.” When I trained as a resident-fellow, and later, when I practiced full-time as a nephrologist-internist, my colleagues and I were routinely expected to work sixty or more hours per week.
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