You Can’t Tell a Book


Apparently I am not the only one who has learned a few things from my patients.  My husband surprised me and wrote this over the weekend, and I thought you might like to read it.

“ I was a pulmonary physician at a Boston hospital when I first met Martin, a patient with advanced emphysema that I was particularly fond of.  Martin lived in a poor neighborhood with his wife who worked as a sales clerk at Filene’s Basement, a discount department store.   He showed up for clinic visits wearing a white undershirt with wrinkled jeans, and carried a dusty backpack where he kept his breathing medicines.   His appearance stood out at this hospital, which typically served the more affluent people of Boston.  Perhaps because of his disheveled looks, other patients and staff seemed to steer clear.  Not surprisingly, I would usually find Martin sitting alone in the corner of the waiting room, often reading an old book.

Over the years I cared for him, I realized that we both shared a love of literature, since I had majored in English in college. Not only did Martin like to read literature, but he was also something of a poet.  He published short poems in a community newspaper and liked to show these to me in a kind of off-hand way saying, “thought you might be interested”.  I remember that I was often too busy in clinic to take the time to read these poems, but I did appreciate the effort that went into them.

One year Martin had several hospitalizations related to his lung disease.  Somehow he became convinced that my care was the only reason he survived these episodes.  Out of gratitude he started to present me with an old book on each clinic visit.    The dusty books piled up in a corner of my office, and I always thanked him but I never had the time to read them. Eventually they were put in a box, and I thought made their way home.

When Martin finally succumbed to his emphysema, I made a point of attending the funeral.  It was the only time in my career that I ever did this.  The funeral was in a large church with several hundred people in attendance. Some stood up and remarked on the positive contributions he had made to the community despite his breathing impairment. When they expressed the love they felt for him, it actually brought me to tears.

A few years later, Martin’s wife showed up in my office to say hello.  It was winter, and to my astonishment, she was dressed to the nines in a mink coat and had a large diamond pendant adorning her neck. “You look great!” I said and then added, “I see you must  have re-married”. She quickly corrected me, “No, I didn’t get another husband.  You see Martin was a good man in more ways than I knew.  After he died, I called up a local book dealer to cart out the stacks and stacks of old books Martin kept in our apartment.    Fortunately for me, this man was honest.  See these books Martin had collected over the years were really valuable.  Most were first editions, and some were signed by famous authors.   Funny thing, I took care of Martin all those years, and now he’s taking care of me after he’s gone.”

That night I rushed home. We had moved since Martin started giving me those books. My wife and I ransacked our house looking for the books but we never did find them. Like their owner, the tattered bindings and dusty covers yielded no clue as to what was inside.”

When I read this story the other night, my husband had an introductory line.  I’ve saved it for the end.  He said “Patients have a way of teaching us some of life’s great lessons, when we are able to see things for what they really are, rather than what they appear to be.”  I say it a little differently.  My patients teach me something every day, about themselves, and about me.  I only have to remember to take the time to look, and to listen.


  1. As someone who goes out and performs before the public, I have learned to always, always take the time it takes, to visit with all who want to. I have met some wonderful people over the years because of this. It’s very true, you should not judge a book by it’s cover….also, as someone who ranches and cowboy’s for a living, it always disturbs and amuses me, the people who decide I must be stupid and ignorant of many things in life because of the way I dress and speak and the work I do. I don’t like being dismissed out of hand, and I feel we shouldn’t do that to others either. I’m sorry but there are way too many people who have a traditional college education who are not very intelligent or people savvy. And many who do not have that same education, yet who are brilliant in so many ways…

  2. What a touching story. You both were willing to share it and to be humbled by the experience. I am so glad, as I am sure your husband is, that he took the time to attend Martin’s funeral. People are worth it, until they prove otherwise.

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