My Father’s Hands

I never gave my hands much thought until a few years ago.  They were never pretty, but they were functional serviceable hands that did what they were asked—I could examine a patient, type fast and accurately enough, and everyone always told me that my handwriting was outstanding.  That has always been a point of pride for I knew that I was never going to kill a patient because a pharmacist could not read my prescription.  I sign my name with the broad sweeping rounded cursive of a 10 year old child.

Perhaps because my hands are no longer young, I realized with a start a couple of years back that they look exactly like my father’s hands.  I was not thrilled to realize this, but it certainly explained the reaction I would always get when trying on rings at a jewelry counter—the salesperson would always say, with great surprise, “Your ring size is SO SMALL!”  Why wouldn’t my ring size be small?  I am a short person—just never grew much.  What I realized was that I have broad palms, and short fingers, and the proportions are all wrong for a person with a size 5 ring finger—yes, I dare say it—because of the proportions my fingers look fat.  This was a huge disappointment to me, since I have always desired the long delicate fingers of a nail polish model.  It does not matter if your ring size is a 5, if your hands are broad and your fingers are short.  Of all the things I could inherit from my father, the green eyes were welcome; the short fingers were not.

My father is eighty seven years old.  Never a tall man, he has lost several inches in height as he has aged, and now barely reaches five feet.  He is a plastic surgeon, once world renowned for his work in maxillo-facial surgery, where surgeons must truly be artists  to repair the faces of children with hideous birth defects, and victims of terrible accidents.  Although he has been “retired” for many years, he never stopped working.  He travels the world with various charitable groups who send surgeons to the far reaches of the globe to repair birth defects and accident and burn victims, allowing them to lead the normal lives that others take for granted.  Yesterday, he returned from Zambia where Surgicorps volunteer plastic surgeons and teams of scrub nurses, anesthesiologists, physical and occupational therapists performed miracles at the Beit Cure Hospital in Lukasa for 60 children in desperate need of surgery to repair their birth defects and burn scar contractures.  This time, for the first time, he took my daughter, the 4th year medical student with him.

My daughter, like me, has chronicled her life in photographs.  This trip was no exception.  She took pictures of the parents and of the children who patiently waited for hours on the hospital lawn, just to be seen, to be evaluated, to have a chance at a better life.  Despite the cleft lips, the cleft palates, the fused fingers and toes and the burn scars, there is happiness and joy in her photographs, and there is patience and forbearance and acceptance.  One photograph, in particular struck me with a force that brought tears to my eyes.  It is a photograph of my father, seated across from a tiny girl.  In this picture, the little girl’s hand, tiny and plump, has closed its fingers around my father’s right index finger.  They are gazing into each others eyes and they are smiling.

Today, I was proud to have my father’s hands.

THE FREEDOM TO BE NEEDED

Doctors lie all the time.  Call it hubris “I can do THIS for you!”, call it denial  “I KNOW you are going to get better!”, call it what you want.  But nowhere do they lie more than when you ask them if they want their children to go to medical school.  Most of them come right out and say, “Never!  If he goes, he’ll be $200,000  in debt when he finishes.  And besides, you know the practice of medicine is not like it used to be—it’s all about paperwork, and insurance authorizations, and seeing your quota of “X” patients per hour.  Get ‘em in, get ‘em out, don’t look back.  I DON’T want my kid to study so hard for 4 years, and then another 3-6 years of residency where he’s paid a subsistence wage, to finally finish and deal with the sorry state of affairs we have now.”

My husband and I were pushed HARD by our parents when we were kids.  As the eldest children in our respective families, many expectations were placed.  It wasn’t enough to do well in school  (“What’s the matter here—you have all A+’s except in math—you got only an A?  What happened???) or in athletics (“Go swim next to Marilyn, and BEAT HER!”)   It was pervasive and it was truly unpleasant.  Both of us left home when we were 17 years old, and never moved back in again.  And we vowed, repeatedly, that we would NEVER do that to our own children.

So when our eldest went to college, and showed a strong interest in film and photography, we did not bat an eyelash when she decided to major in film studies.  And when she graduated and could not find any paying job in the industry (“no, honey, I will NOT support you while you spend the next year as an unpaid Go-fer for a screenwriter, no matter how famous she is!”), we said “yes” when she decided to go to cooking school in London, spending the last bit of cash I had set aside for her to go to graduate school.  And we were supportive and enthusiastic when she returned from cooking school and got a job as a line chef at a fancy downtown restaurant, despite the fact that she made minimum wages and had no benefits whatsoever—health or retirement.

Sometimes epiphanies are hard to come by.  Mine came after my sophomore year of college where I was an honors English major.  I was backpacking and youth hosteling through Europe with my roommate and we were on a train from Brindisi to Rome.  By the time we ran for the train as it was pulling out of the station, there were no available seats.  So we stood up in the aisle the entire trip, which was overnight.  Unlike my horses, I do not know how to sleep on my feet.  An overnight trip surrounded by sweaty co-travelers reeking of garlic would not SEEM to be conducive to self- exploration, but oddly it was.  I thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up.   I loved English literature, particularly poetry.  And then I thought about what teaching jobs were likely to be available to me—perhaps a job teaching remedial English at a local junior college?  Or a low level editor at a publishing house (back when there WERE publishing houses)?   I knew already that there were people in my class who were destined to teach at the Ivy Leagues—they had won poetry awards, they had developed a new way of looking at Chaucer, they could read and speak five languages—in short, they were brilliant.  That was not me.  On that hot July night, on that train, standing up swaying and lurching, it came to me that when I was in high school my most rewarding experience had been working as a candy striper at a spinal cord rehabilitation center.  I was APPRECIATED.  I was NEEDED.  And that was the night I decided definitively to go to medical school.  And besides, I knew that Daddy would be so proud.

I think that my daughter had a similar epiphany.  Cleaning splattered grease off the ceiling from a ladder in that hot kitchen at the restaurant at 2 am, to take home a wage that would never allow her to move out of our home, she assessed her skills, and her history, which was that she was always the care giver—to her animals, to her brothers, and sometimes even to her parents.  She knew that she was very good with knives and with her hands.  And without much ado, and very much like her mother before her, she decided to go to medical school.  Which I am not ashamed to admit, pleased me greatly.

My daughter will finish medical school in less than a year.  Right now, she is in Zambia, at the CURE hospital there, working with my father, a retired plastic surgeon, on correcting birth defects, and lessening contractures in children who have suffered horrible burns from the main resource for cooking in that country—charcoal.  She is the third generation in my family to go into medicine, fourth if you count my grandfather who was a dentist, and my husband’s grandfather, who was a veterinarian.  This trip will be life changing for her—of that I am certain.

When I was a medical student, a very smart man who was doing his Pulmonary fellowship at Stanford said to me,  “Medicine is the freedom to be needed”.  That is a statement I have never forgotten.   And if you ask another doctor whether they would want their kid to become a doctor and they say “No”, trust me, they are lying to you.