The Good Books

Where I come from, when most people refer to The Good Book, they are referring to the Bible.  This is not true for my father, because to him, the Good Books are something else entirely.  He describes a scene early in his career as a plastic surgeon, when he had taken his doting mother to see his new office. Coincidentally, a lovely thank you note had just arrived from one of his patients.  He read it appreciatively and passed it on to my grandmother, so that she could “kvell” over her son the doctor even more, as if that were possible. His secretary, having a penchant for scrapbooking and noticing the mutual positive reinforcement going on, decided that from that day on, when Dad received a thank you note or letter of appreciation, she would put it in a scrapbook, which he anointed as his “Good Book.”  By the time he retired from full time practice at age 75, he had accumulated a series of five very thick Good Books.  And he advised me to do the same.  He said that when he felt tired or depressed, he would read his Good Books and feel revived.

I’ve never been as organized as my father, who keeps meticulous files on everything that interests him, to this day.  Nor, as a young female physician just starting practice in the early 1980’s, did I ever have a secretary that I would DREAM of asking to “scrapbook” for me, much less bring me a cup of coffee.  But I had many appreciative notes from patients, and I read and treasured each one.  I put them in the top drawer of my desk, and would reread them when I came upon them while searching for a highlighter, or a directory of local doctors.  And when I left that particular job, or that particular city, or that particular office, I would read them one more time, remember the patients who wrote, and let them slip into the recycle bin.  There’s only so much you can take with you, apart from the memories.

Exactly two weeks ago, I received a letter at my office addressed to me personally.  The letter originated in Bradenton, FL where I know no one. I did not immediately recognize the name or the return address, but I opened it and read:

“Dear Dr. Fielding:

It has been 25 years since I completed treatment by you for Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  I came to the Leonard Morse Hospital from Turkey with a tumor in my chest.  I was treated by Dr. Jao and referred to you for radiation therapy.  My treatment included radiation therapy and chemotherapy from November 1987 to October 1988.

I will always remember that when I would meet with you during my radiation therapy I usually felt “lousy.”  You would come into the exam room and tell me I looked great.  Your positive and caring manner always lifted my spirits and renewed my confidence that I would overcome Hodgkins.

I retired in 1995 and have enjoyed good health and my retirement in Florida.  Your caring and medical expertise saved my life and I am forever grateful.  I thank you and wish you a Happy New Year.    Sincerely,  RB.”

The letter was accompanied by a photograph of my patient and his wife, riding gilded carousel horses on a merry-go-round, hands held high to reach for the golden ring.  They appear to be very happy.

I have been thinking a lot lately about retirement myself.   There are places I want to go, people I want to see, and things that I want to do while I am still healthy enough to do them.  When I got home the evening I received that letter, I showed it to my husband who said, “I bet you won’t want to retire now!”  I thought about it for a minute and said, “No, you are very wrong about that. That letter made me cry, but not because I want to continue to do radiation therapy forever.  It made me cry because it made me feel that what I have done since I graduated from medical school in 1978 was worthwhile.  That it MEANT something. That I have not wasted my time.”

To my patients who have taken the time to write over the years—you have no idea how much that means to us doctors.  To my daughter, struggling through a tough internship year in Boston, and to my medical students—stick with it.  Thirty years from now you will be very happy you did, with or without some Good Books of your own.

8 thoughts on “The Good Books

  1. Yes, those letters mean a lot to us who deal with the sick, and perhaps dying patients, human or animal. I have a file full and I, also, turn to them in times of need. Thank you.
    Jan

  2. M,

    In 1981 when your father created “new noses” for my sis and me – what a fun time – having a shared room at Methodist together and going through the procedure in a pair (of course nowadays it’s outpatient stuff but back then we spent 2 nights in the hospital). After we were healed and happy I asked your father what we could possibly do to say Thank You – he quickly suggested baking him a Carrot Cake. So I did and duly delivered to your house. This time I got a Thank you note, and I still have it. It’s on official Baylor Letterhead and is one of my favorite memories. As for the recent letter YOU received, perhaps the Retirement Conversation in your head is being nudged along. Retirement is an interesting mix of busy and nothingness. And that’s the great part – only you get to decide how your day unfolds. I wish you resolution on this decision and may those days come sooner than later. You deserve it.

  3. Beautiful story. As you know, I have retired twice but I’m still working in Rad Therapy 2-3 days a month -which is perfect. It wasn’t my idea but I really enjoy still spending time with patients & having time left over to do the other things I love. There can be a happy medium. Good luck with your decision.

  4. I also have a couple of those Good Books. And when feeling down, I open them & read the cards. That always makes me feel better. As I stare down the barrel of my own 30+ career, I alternatley feel enthusiasim & forlornness. So, I am hoping to keep contributing by volunteering where there is a large Latino population that could use a bilingual navigator. The best part of my day has always been interacting with patients. As always, thank you for sharing!

  5. Another beautiful essay.

    I have written about this very issue myself, also as a radiation oncologist and recipient of some of the sweetest thank-you notes ever (but none from patients from 25 years ago!). I have found the whole experience of getting these thank-you notes to be such a surprise, so touching, and so…thrilling.

    If you would care to read the essay, it’s at
    http://www.boston.com/jobs/globe/view_cube/archive/112005.shtml

    Best of luck with your writing, and your decisions.

    Robin

    • Robin, thanks so much for writing in. I loved your article in the Globe, even though it made me feel guilty about the Christmas thank you notes still unwritten! I was genetically programmed in a similar way, but by my Jewish, not Catholic mother. And I’ve made sure that my kids know exactly how I feel about it! One thing I did not write about in this piece is the thank you notes from families of patients who died. Perhaps in the end, this is why I don’t keep them all forever. Some things are just too painful to remember. M

  6. You clearly have those letters in your memory and in your heart and this makes me really happy that as a patient over the years I have written (and will continue) to many of my doctors and their staff. A really good book indeed! What a great segway to retirement!

  7. “Of all the gin joints in the world…” It’s nice, for once, to have the sweet without the bitter! And so well-told. Thanks for sharing this, Dr. Fielding.

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