I feel like I’ve been through the wringer over the past two weeks. Examined with great urgency for pneumonia and asthma attacks, tested positive for tick-borne illness, rushed again to Emergency for doctors’ fear of clots in my lungs, but released home late Friday afternoon. In two weeks, I did two visits to the Emergency, one two-day hospitalization, one urgent visit to my regular clinic, and today an online visit with another doctor. Next week, with my doctor finally back from vacation, I will talk to her and almost certainly do more blood work.
Yesterday, I woke up, looked at the blue morning skies through the window, and knew this would be a turnaround day for me. Everything looked way more colorful than before: trees greener, hummingbirds redder, and grass browner, unfortunately, for lack of rain. Went out with dogs for the first time in 2 weeks and managed to keep up the energy throughout the day (without sleeping 12 hours out of 24). Today builds on that.
Years ago, it was common for successful Jewish men to become doctors, and they were so highly thought of that some people insisted they wanted only a Jewish doctor.
I was cared for in a local community hospital, not the kind you go to for cancer, serious stroke or surgery, but perfect for the things that ail me, like sudden asthma attacks or respiratory infections. I have had excellent care for the most part, with the exception of one doctor who, while diagnosing me well, couldn’t sit down and have a conversation with me about developments in my body (of which there were plenty) other than giving me his best opinion from on high for 5 minutes each morning and then running out the door.
I have little patience for things like that and wasn’t sleeping at all during my hospital stay, so I discharged myself in the face of dire threats and went home to sleep.
What I most take away from the experience of the last two weeks is the high-level care of nurses, lab technicians, and aides in the hospital. People choose to work in a place where no one wants to go. Very little natural light filters in (none into the emergency ward), and the shifts are long. They’ve been asked to work extra hours because, like so many hospitals, there aren’t enough nurses and aides. They get complaints and outbursts of anger and frustration, they’re tired—and I didn’t meet one who wasn’t gracious and attentive, who didn’t show great care for my wellbeing.
My night nurse did the night shift to make more money and would leave by 7 am to have breakfast with her two little girls before off they went for the day while she slept.
“Could you open the blinds to the window so that I could see the sun?” I asked the day nurse. I had little strength to walk.
She brushed the curtains away from the window, laughed, and said: “It’s really hot out there. It was 100 yesterday at 4:00 in the afternoon. I had face cream in the car and the oil separated from everything else due to the heat.”
What I’m especially happy about is the Spanish I hear in the hallways and the Spanish-accented talk by many of the nurses, lab technicians, aides, and doctors. I live amidst New England towns, not especially known for their diversity, but we do have a vibrant immigrant community here as well, some legal, some not. Each time someone spoke to me in accented English I knew they were probably first-generation immigrants here. I don’t care how they got across the border but here they were, highly professional and attentive to my every need.
As a first-generation American, I can guess at what lay behind all that: trying to get to the US, finding places to live (doubling and tripling up due to high rents), doing backbreaking, long hours on the farms, raising children, learning English, registering for one course at the local community college, then another, and slowly over the years obtaining the certificate or degree needed to get off the farms and work in medical care. It’s a big story of hardship, poverty, and discrimination, continuing to put one foot after another to build a career, build a life.
It’s what my parents did, and unless you live on the inside of it, it’s easy to miss that story, easier to deny it’s happening, to claim that immigrants now aren’t what they used to be, they don’t work like they used to, etc.
The many people who took care of me, with a single exception, did the best they could for me, a total stranger. As sick as I was, it was clear to me that right there the American dream was still going strong, still being fulfilled through the hard labor of many people. Not only are they sending their kids to college, they’re going to college.
I’m especially happy tor the women, who are very slowly breaking out of the macho culture that has restricted them from the day they were born. I’ve talked of this endlessly with Jimena, who has described to me the unwritten laws governing their lives to do with birth control, who spends the money, and who makes decisions in the family. These don’t change overnight, but every single woman I met in my hospital stays has begun to make big changes and model a different life to her daughters.
So no, send me no Jewish doctor. Send me people who talk with accented English, their big eyes warm, their lips smiling under the masks they wear 12 hours running, the respect and grace they show everywhere.
And finally, a related but not so related item: I mourn the death of Bill Russell. Many years ago, I watched basketball. I lived in New York then, so of course we were Knick fans, and it was a big deal whenever the Boston Celtics came to town. There was no one like Bill Russell. Two things stand out: One is that he wasn’t about making himself look good, he made everyone around him look good, elicited the best out of the players around him. That’s a definition of greatness. Stephen Curry is a bit like that, but not like Russell.
And second, what a human being he was. He played for and brought glory to one of the most racist cities in the northern US and he was angry about it. When he finished with the Celtics, he was finished with Boston and left. I’m glad he lived many more years and, I hope, found peace before he died.
Many of us are excellent in what we do; a few are even great. But way fewer than those are the people who transcend the personal gifts and skills they’ve cultivated and become something else, maybe a symbol, maybe a myth. I think of Muhammad Ali like that (those priceless radio interviews with Howard Cosell!), I think of the Dalai Lama like that. Yes, they’re products of family and training, but they’ve gone way beyond that.
It’s also how I think of Bill Russell.
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