JASON S. SLAKTER, MD
Being a physician in today's environment carries with it stress, frustration and responsibility. But the profession also offers us some remarkable benefits. Perhaps the most obvious is the ability to help people see better, and in so doing improve their quality of life. From this, there is no doubt we derive a great deal of personal satisfaction and well-being ourselves. An additional but often overlooked benefit relates to the fact that as ophthalmologists we deal directly with people on a daily basis. As a result, we have an opportunity to meet and get to know many fascinating individuals with diverse and often remarkable life experiences.
Just the other day, I saw a new patient for a comprehensive evaluation of her retinal status. She was a very nice 95-year-old woman who looked and acted as if she were 30 years younger. As I was inquiring about her past family history, it came to light that she was a Holocaust survivor, having escaped from Germany during the early part of the war, and had spent a couple of years hiding out with relatives in Switzerland. She reported that she eventually made her way onto a freighter that departed from Denmark and, weeks later, arrived in the United States. She jokingly said that, when the captain announced to the passengers that they had finally arrived in Baltimore, she had to ask someone, “Where's Baltimore? Is that in the United States?” As it turned out, she had indeed arrived in America, and she went on to find employment, marry and raise a family that now spans several generations.
The people that we deal with every day come from a variety of backgrounds and each has his or her own story to tell if we take the time to listen to them. I have learned a lesson in pride and perseverance from a 78-year-old lady from Harlem who literally glows when she describes her grandson, who was not only the first in her family to graduate from college, but is now a recent graduate from medical school. I have seen the humility of a businessman who, in spite of his great financial success, has come to realize the value of the simple things in life as he faces the challenges of losing vision from macular degeneration. There is the strength of a 30-year-old woman who developed advanced diabetic retinopathy and lost her sight, but still travels from New Jersey to New York City every day with her guide dog so that she can continue to work, at nothing less than interior decorating. And then there is the simple pleasure of sharing humorous anecdotes with patients of all ages, including a 99-year-old woman whose jokes never fail to embarrass her daughter.
Sometimes, we really need to take a moment to think about the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from caring for real human beings. I know it is difficult to do this at times, particularly with the hectic schedules that we all face. But I think we are doing our patients and ourselves a disservice not to at least listen to them and their stories.
As for that 95-year-old woman from the beginning of this column, as she was leaving the office and I mentioned that I would see her in one year for follow-up, she replied, “You'll be seeing me until I'm 103.” When I asked her why 103, she said, “That's when my pension will run out.” So I asked her, “What happens if you live past that age?” She replied, “I guess I'll just have to get a job.”
Another lesson learned.