For 25 years, I have had the same doctor. I like her so well that when she moved her practice several years ago about 45 miles south, I followed.
Over the years, we’ve come to know each other somewhat well. I know her husband’s name, her children, where she goes to church (and that she sings in the choir), from which college she graduated, what a handful her daddy can be, how her mama died kinda sudden, how she votes, which unpretentious car she drives, why she decided to blonde up her hair, the compelling letter her youngest daughter wrote when she wanted a dog and how the child has faithfully kept her promises to take care of the dog. I even know that the dog’s name is Ernie.
What I didn’t know until my last regular check-up is that my doctor — the one concerned with the migraines I have and the somewhat disloyal thyroid I possess — is a stand-up comedian. She let that slip out. There have been plenty of opportunities in 25 years when she could have told that one.
My mouth dropped, and I blinked hard. “You do stand-up?”
She blushed a pretty rosy color. She’s attractive with a nice complexion and a big smile filled with very white, perfect teeth.
“Yeah,” she shrugged. “It’s my hobby. I enjoy it.”
Over the years, we have shared a lot of storytelling between us but that critical piece somehow escaped. It goes to show how we can miss something important about someone important to us. We can all do better about this. Since the arrival of smartphones and social media, which seem to demand constant attention, I notice that people often ask a question then halfway listen to the answer. Then, they don’t follow up to learn more.
The Wall Street Journal recently had an article about a VA hospital in Wisconsin where they practice “narrative medicine.” This has begun with the Department of Veteran Affairs in an effort to make a patient more than just a diagnosis. In what I think is a fledgling program, someone interviews the patient, learns his life story then types it into a 1,500 word essay that is included in the medical records. When medical professionals check the file, they find out more than vitals.
A few days before I read the article, I attended an event which honored our veterans. One was a World War II combat pilot, now 97 and drawn into a very small man. Another had served in the Navy during Korea, while yet another, with longish, gray hair, had been captured in Vietnam. I watched them on stage and saw their eyes water with remembrances of what they saw and what they had experienced. I did not imagine the teary-eyed memories. They were real.
I studied each man and wondered what he did before service to our country, how he got through the sounds of battle and how it changed him for the rest of his life. The previous day, I had the privilege to meet Ruth Graham, the daughter of evangelist Billy Graham. We had fallen into conversation about a documentary on Dr. Graham that plays frequently on the Christian Broadcasting Network. If you have not seen this, you must. It is powerful.
We talked about Dr. Graham’s famed tent revival in Los Angeles and how Louis Zamperini, the World War II POW who inspired “Unbroken,” a best-selling book and movie, had been saved during that time. His conversion helped him to escape the memories and excessive drinking.
Every person who has lived a long life is more than a diagnosis of diabetes, cancer, heart disease or COPD. This is especially true for our veterans who have served, then suffered for years afterwards. The sirens and explosions of war cannot be easily forgotten.
Discovering the stories of soldiers —their narrative — may just be the medicine that helps to heal.