Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace
Author Biographies (alphabetical order - click on letter)
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A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | R | S | T | U | W | Y | Z
In 1957, at the age of three, I decided to become a doctor. I have now been practicing emergency medicine for more than twenty years. For much of my career, I worked in large county hospitals in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Oakland, California. My coming of age as an emergency physician paralleled the growing urban epidemics of drugs, AIDS, and interpersonal violence. I was trained to deal with witnessing such horror by detaching emotionally from myself and from the people I was treating. No one told me what the cost of that would be: I became progressively cynical, losing all my significant relationships and living as a smug, bitter, and lonely victim.
In 1994, an everyday encounter with an extraordinary patient woke me up. I saw for the first time how numb I had become, and how much pain that numbness had caused, both for me and for those around me. I developed a powerful desire to recapture my soul. Initially I thought I would have to stop practicing medicine to do so. I quit my career and fled to wander Europe. But my calling wouldn’t let me go so easily. When a stranger collapsed on a train between Paris and Florence, I was thrust again into the role of physician, this time with my bare hands, with neither medical equipment nor backup. The joy of experiencing pure medical practice, without the trappings of the American health care system, shocked me into seeing how much I still love being a doctor. Since then, I have been searching for more openhearted ways to practice, and to teach, medicine.
My greatest satisfaction as an emergency physician these days lies less in mastering skills and more in the relational aspects of the job: listening to patients, meeting their families, even breaking difficult news. At the same time, after twelve years of working to undo my professional detachment, I still struggle during almost every shift. I have not had good role models.
I joined the Veterans’ Writing Group in 1998, as a veteran of inner- city American urban warfare. With the support of the group, I am slowly writing a book illustrating my journey to numbness and then to wholeness. Through my writing, I hope to spare others the pain I have endured. I dream of someday breaking down the barriers between health care providers and the people they serve.
A psychic once told me I had been involved with war in many past lives. She also told me I had accrued a lot of karma that I needed to work off. I groaned at that statement, but she laughed and said, “Let me explain further; it is the accruing that is difficult—the killing and maiming and destruction and dying a bad death—but the payment is different; here you are an acupuncturist helping people heal.” I hope her interpretation is correct.
This life, I was an R.E.M.F. (Rear Echelon M F , officially known as support personnel). Actually, the in-country R.E.M.F.s would consider me an ultra R.E.M.F. U.S. Navy, Seventh Fleet, the Gun Line, a mile off the coast of Viet Nam, on a ship functioning as a floating artillery unit. About as close to combat as you can get and not be anywhere near it. Nonetheless, I carry my share of responsibility and therefore, guilt for the death and destruction caused by the 2,000-pound shells fired from that ship.
I joined the Navy in 1966 to try to avoid Vietnam and in some senses I did; I was never in direct combat, but was support—in my case, as a communications technician on board two cruisers on what the navy called the Gun Line. The whole Seventh Fleet sat about a mile off the coast of Vietnam and acted as a floating artillery unit. My work/living spaces were one deck below a set of sixteen-inch guns capable of throwing 2,000-pound shells up to twenty miles. Part of my job was to see they went to the right place; on target people died, off target people died.
There were weeks we fired twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That is a lot of death and destruction; a lot of energy to be absorbed. To this day, I cannot tolerate the sound of two glass bottles clinking together, because it reminds me of the sound of the mechanism used to move the guns, and on the Fourth of July, I join our dog under the bed, waiting for the whole thing to end.