One of the great privileges I have as a physician who cares for elders is that I get a chance to hear about people’s lives. I believe in the importance of stories. Each of us is, in essence, a collection of narratives. Every interaction we have with another person is part of a grand narrative – think about family gatherings or getting together with friends: much of the conversation revolves around shared past experiences.
The other important thing about shared narratives is that there is a propensity to tell them over again, even to the same people – which, when they are one’s children, often leads to the well-recognized rolling of the eyes – and, “again – I have heard this, I know this story.”
I often counsel children of aging parents that it is important for the children to listen intently, even to oft-repeated stories. Also when possible, ask clarifying or expanding-subject questions to show the parent that their “story” matters. Years later, one often hears children recount these parental stories with an appreciation that did not exist at the earlier time.
As we look back on our own lives, we can probably identify those critical experiences that may have changed the trajectory of our life choices. Some may have been monumental, as with the loss of an important person, a move from a well-known domicile to a new city or even country. Sometimes it might have been a book or film or musical piece that inspired a latent talent or need as yet unappreciated.
For me, one that was particularly potent in my life was reading the book The Citadel by A.J. Cronin, a Scottish physician/writer. I was all geared up to study engineering, having been raised in a household of a very beloved engineer father and having attended the excellent Brooklyn Technical High School, which provided two hours a day of engineering-related subjects with shops of all kinds so that by the end of the curriculum, there was not an industrial undertaking or process that was completely unfamiliar to the graduates. Using tools and machines, and understanding “how things work,” was how I was raised at home and Tech (as we called it) was the place to master those skills.
And then came The Citadel. I do not recall how I came upon the book. After I read it, I mentioned to a dear friend that I was thinking maybe of medicine instead of engineering, and she said, “You would be a better doctor than engineer.”
That, in essence, was my career counselling – from that conversation to the one during which I told my parents of my career rethinking was only a short period.
Soon after, thanks to the unbelievable liberalism of my parents, I was allowed to take half of my college junior year off and travel around Europe on my own – with the assistance of a small Renault, which, in those days, was a way to re-import a car very inexpensively.
Another critical experience happened toward the end of my trip – while I was living on the wages of a menial job. I met a group of Copenhagen medical students who “adopted” me and took me to the medical school. I realized that students could enjoy medical studies – in contrast to what I had observed among my contemporaries studying medicine in the United States.
Thus my desire to study medicine overseas, which ended up with my studies taking place in Dundee, Scotland – one of the great pieces of luck in my life and, as it turned out, my medical career. Not planned, not imagined, but it happened through a combination of good fortune and happenstance, something that many of us experience throughout life.
It is these stories that I try to elicit from my elderly patients as I try to connect with them at the personal in addition to the medical level.