Recovering from a respiratory infection and three days before an exam, shadowing a doctor for one of my required clinical experiences was the last thing I wanted to do.
Per protocol, I called the doctor a day in advance to confirm our plans. Usually I was calling a receptionist at the office who would instruct me to report to the facility at a certain time and hang up the phone. When I dialed the contact number of this physician, I was greeted with, “Hello, Dr. S”. A little taken aback to be reaching the doctor’s personal number, I said, “Hello, Dr. S. I’m student doctor Soze. I’m calling to confirm my scheduled Clinical Experience with you tomorrow afternoon”. Expecting a quick “okay, great, 1pm 555 State Street”, Dr. S engaged me in conversation, asked me how my day was, and ended the talk by giving me his cell phone number, instructing me to text him my name and email. I texted him and later that night he replied, “Hey Soze, busy night here at the office. We’re running late. I’m going to send you an email as soon as I’m home! Email me outlining your personal goals, what you hope to learn from our experience, and tell me a little bit about yourself”.
I found this a bit strange and over-the-top, but I emailed him. Later that night, he replied with several paragraphs, detailing his numerous awards, his life story, with his CV attached as well as documentation of “best physician instructor of the year award”. Fucking great. I’m sick, I have to study for an exam, I just want to go in, do my time and go home, but I’ve got to work with Dr. Enthusiasm for a day, who would undoubtedly be expecting a lot from me.
I drove to the building, walked in and was escorted to the doctor’s office while he was with a patient. I sat down in the seat across from his desk and scanned the room. A life-sized cut-out poster of the doctor in full military uniform in front of an American flag with Colonel S, United States Military inscribed over top was positioned front and center. The walls were decorated with various pictures of the doctor flying helicopters and holding assault rifles in military uniform. Various plaques, diplomas, awards, and ribbons scattered throughout. Beautiful paintings with his signature at the bottom. An army helmet used as a book stand on his shelf filled with hundreds of inspiring medical and military related titles.
I took a puff of my inhaler to hopefully open up my airways and subdue my coughing. Eventually, the doctor walked in, a little shorter than I’d expected, but eagerness and passion vibrating from his warm smile and firm handshake alike. On appearance the man was short, had salt and pepper hair (more salt than pepper), and sported the militaristic demeanor, kind of like a diet R. Lee Ermey.
After our introductions, we went to see some patients. In the patient room, I coughed, and proceeded to wash my hands. I coughed again, apologized, and washed my hands once more. The entire time the doc was talking to the patient with impeccable bedside manner, comforting in tone, humorous, while also emanating expertise and compassion. I noticed that his left shoe had a three inch thick sole, while his right was of normal thickness, indicating that his left leg was several inches shorter than his right. During most of my clinical shadowing experiences, the doctors almost seemed annoyed by my presence, some just letting me stand in the corner without acknowledging my existence, while sometimes humiliating me in front of patients, because that’s the cool thing to do to a first year medical student who has no idea what is going on. Doctor S was different, however, because each time he asked a patient a question, prescribed a medication, or talked about a certain symptom, he would explain everything to me. Instead of simply instructing me to follow him around like a muzzled-dog who was simply there to observe like most doctors did, he did everything in his power to teach me both the science of medicine and the art of compassionate care.
However, each and every patient we saw was greeted warmly, and during each and every patient visit I couldn’t stop coughing.
After about an hour of patients, he pulled me outside, and in a friendly, yet assertive way and said, “try to stop coughing”. “Yes sir”. In the next patient room, I was doing fine. No coughing. No urge to cough. Five minutes later, I felt that familiar tickle in my throat. He said, “Soze, why don’t you listen to the patient’s heart and lungs for me”. Oh fuck no. I suppressed the physical urge, and placed my stethoscope to the patient’s chest, beat red in the face and eyes watering from holding back the insurmountable pressure in my chest that was screaming at me to let out a gigantic, harsh cough right in the patient’s face. I went through the motions, not being able to even concentrate on the sound waves being transmitted through my stethoscope because all I could think about was the embarrassment of coughing on the patient, who came to the doctor to get better, and not to have germs aggressively sprayed all over their face at 400 mph (the speed of air flowing through your respiratory tract in a cough, neat fact).
After keeping up the appearance that I was actually examining the patient and not on the verge of a stroke, I stepped away and muttered, “sounds good” before erupting into a fit of coughing. I apologized and washed my hands again. After this patient, the doc said to just chill in his office til’ I felt better.
In the office, I drank water and sucked on cough drops, embarrassed and bored, studying the numerous certificates and awards that adorned the walls. A picture of the doc shaking hands with president Slick Willy Clinton hung next to another of the man sporting a heart-warming smile on a boat with his wife.
After a while, the young resident he was working with entered the room and greeted me. We talked about medical school, residency, why he chose to pursue family medicine, all the normal stuff young medical professionals talk about. I asked, “how long have you been working with Dr. S?” He replied that he’d been with him a few weeks, before going on to explain that with Dr. S, you never get out on time. Most family physicians enjoy the comfort of a 9-5 life, but Dr. S often stayed until 6-7 because he simply loved his patients so much that he would always treat each patient as his friend, counseling them on health, life, and sharing many jokes along the way. He lives for this shit. It was refreshing to interact with a doctor who wasn’t burned out and loved his work, a man who was in this line of work because he has the passion for it.
While talking the resident paused and said, “He’s a really fascinating guy”. I encouraged him to continue… “You have to ask him to tell you some of his stories. Like the one about Saddam Hussein”. Um, what? “He was Saddam Hussein’s doctor for 90 days when he was captured. He’ll tell you all about it.” Okay, now the veteran colonel who happened to be the happiest damn doctor I’ve ever met was the infamously murderous tyrannt’s personal doctor?
I had to know.
After my coughing subsided, I followed the doctor around to see more patients, while thinking of nothing other than a way to seamlessly weave a question about Saddam Hussein into conversation. Finally, around 6 p.m., we were done seeing patients as we retreated to his office to do some final work and charting. I asked, “So Dr. S, what was it like being a military doctor deployed overseas?”
He replied with various platitudes about how proud he was to serve his country while discussing his service in a general sense, before I asked, “do you have any crazy stories?” At last I had opened to vault of his life’s most interesting experiences – “Well, I was Saddam Hussein’s assigned personal doctor for 90 days while he was captive”. I made an exasperated face as if I didn’t already know this. I inquired more – “how did it feel to take care of such a terrible tyrant?” You know, this is a man who rained poison gas to kill thousands of his own citizens, jailed anyone who opposed him, and made torture and execution a fundamental part of his image. Not exactly a dude I’d want to hang out with, let alone provide medical care to.
Dr. S continued with his story, “You know Soze, it’s hard to say. It really changed my worldview”. What do you mean? “I met with him every single day for three months, we communicated through a translator, and he tried to reach out to me and speak to me since his doctors were some of the only people he had contact with who weren’t trying to extract information or kill him”.
This is where things get interesting. He said, “I will not say I like him, I will not say he didn’t do terrible things, but I understood him“. You what… “He pleaded with me, not to try to convince me or anyone else that he should be absolved from his inevitable death and set free, but he had a burning desire to tell me his side of the story”.
“He grew up in a chaotic world, nothing like the world we know. Violence and brutality were engrained in his psyche the same way that holding doors for strangers and saying please & thank you are for you and I. He bled Iraqi blood. He loved his country and did everything he could to keep his country functioning. And he insisted – the country could not survive and sustain without an iron-fist approach to ruling. The Iraqi people needed strength and power, and that is what he provided. His only goal was to see his country that he loved succeed, and he believed that he could not do that without fierce, brutal dictatorship”.
“Maybe it was misguided, maybe it wasn’t. Do I think it excuses his crimes? Do I think it makes it right? No. But I do understand. Anyways, that’s all on that matter” as he directed his attention back towards his computer to work on his notes for the day.
While I was astonished, one work of literature was beaming through my brain – Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut, a wonderful novel exploring the nature of good and evil in the context of Nazi Germany. Growing up in America affords us a hopeful worldview and fairytale idealizations of life, while hiding the ugliness that perpetuates humanity aside from a two minute CNN clip of some sort of terrorist atrocity in a distant part of the globe. It’s easy to look at someone and say, “hey, you did that, you’re bad”, without any sort of context. Again, while we were taught to be polite to people and never harm others, perhaps on some other part of the world a little boy sees his father’s execution and fights famine every day of his life under the rule of tyrants. Perhaps the guy on the other side of the battle field was taught that you were evil scum in the same way that you were taught to hate them. Vonnegut writes, “it was my world rather than myself that was diseased”. So that raises the question – can you blame someone for being diseased if they grow up in a diseased world?
I don’t know much of anything and I’m perfectly okay with that. Saddam was an awful person who did awful things, but the doctor’s stories really made me contemplate the nature of good and evil.
Meanwhile, the doctor interrupted my brief musings on morality to chat with the resident and I about seemingly everything else he had ever done, providing extensive photographic documentation. He ushered the two of us to his computer screen where we hovered over his shoulders as he scrolled through every picture he had ever taken. “Here’s me flying an F-15 Eagle”… “This is my old helicopter, had to sell it sadly” .. “Here’s my nephew, he graduated from the Naval Academy two years ago” … “The wife and I in the Maldives” … “This is the 2000 pound marlin I reeled in off the coast of San Juan” … “Check out the patio on my new house, you guys should come over sometime! We can have pizza, drink beers, look at pathology slides on my projector screen” … “Oh, and this is me with Colin Powell” … “Here’s a great shot I took of a queen parrot fish while scuba diving” … “and here I am with an AR-15 in Iraq” … Then while scrolling through his photos he quickly swept past three pictures of marijuana plants. The resident and I both looked at each other from the corners of our eyes as we realized Saddam Hussein’s doctor, the decorated military vet, the certified pilot, the outdoor adventurer, and the passionate white-haired physician also had a strong interest in botany and herbal therapies.
What a guy.