One of the wonderful things about being a doctor is that you are privileged to witness amazing stories: gut-wrenching, heart-opening, soul-uplifting stories that chart the human journey, the epic process of challenge and growth in which every one of us is engaged. For nearly thirty years, most of them spent working at a major medical center in New York City, I witnessed a great many such stories, far more, in fact, than I can possibly remember. And still, there are more than enough that I will never forget, fierce and tender ones that carved out a permanent niche in the marrow of my bones, and these I feel compelled to share.
These are stories of my patients and their families—people I cared for and worked with every day, people I loved and learned from. These stories come from my years as a medical student, intern and resident in clinical training, and then as a hospital-based inner-city pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, and finally as a research physician in charge of a three-year research project entitled “Dying and the Inner Life,” investigating what people with terminal illness can tell us about the experience of feeling the end of life approaching. The stories span the arc of the human journey from the beginning to the very end.
They lead from the arrival of new life in the hospital delivery room through episodes of illness and injury and the ever-present hope of healing, all the way to the bedside of those who are in their final days. They tell about moments when ordinary people seek help in facing extraordinary trials, and they reveal the many ways in which triumph and transformation can prevail amid the harrowing circumstances of hospital life and the hi-tech, sometimes Stone-Age-like practices of modern medicine.
At the same time, these stories shed light on the inner life of doctors. They provide insight into the long, grueling path of training that doctors must undergo and the soul-stretching experiences we endure as we seek to help people whose lives are at stake. It is a life I have loved. Being able to help people who are ill and suffering has been a privilege. To see life become better for many of them has been a wonderful reward.
I have loved the profession of medicine for another reason as well: being a doctor has made me appreciate life’s profound mystery. For the mystery of life—the miracle that surrounds us at every moment but is so easily taken for granted—stands out more clearly in times of urgency or crisis like those encountered in an emergency room or intensive care unit or delivery suite. When you feel life is at risk of slipping away, you become very aware of how precious and irreplaceable it is. And because these places of urgency and crisis are where I spent much of my time, I felt the wonder of human existence on a daily basis.
These stories contain that wonder, each in a different way. Some relate the experience of parents, like Saul and Rebecca, whose first child died in their arms from a brain tumor at the age of two, and whose second child came into the world bearing a gift that made all of us in the delivery room gasp. Others describe the experience of infants, from the snuggly wrapped newborns lying safely asleep in their bassinets in the well-baby nurseries to the other little newcomers in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit down the hall, the not-so-lucky ones who clung to life by a thread.
Still others concern remarkable children, such as four-year-old Isabella, an impish child with AIDS whose wisdom reached far beyond her years; and young Bobby, who taught every person he knew that being “different” means nothing more or less than being exactly who you are; and little Angel, who had the gentlest dying of anyone I have ever known. There are also adolescents, like Migdalia, an angry sixteen-year-old whose inner strength allowed her to survive a devastating accident and find a goodness in it that changed her life, and Leo, a terminally ill, thrown-away teenager in foster care who discovered the power of forgiveness and generosity all on his own.
Some of the stories concern older people too: James, a longtime drug dealer with AIDS whose near-death experience showed him that his wasted life had more good in it than he had imagined; Randolf, a proud patriarch of the theater world who made peace with a monstrous self-doubt in time to savor a gentler view of himself as he waited for death to come; and ninety-six-year-old Hildie, who, despite her toothless, debilitated condition, insisted that being grateful is one of the most important things one can do in life.
My aim in telling these stories is to offer a riveting glimpse into the world of hospitals and doctoring where so much intensity and depth exists. It seems to me that many people today are hungering for this—hungering to taste the unadorned reality of joy and pain, of life and death. I have done my best to see that the stories contained in the following pages provide that opportunity. They are intended to plunge readers into the sometimes unsettling but ultimately uplifting drama of life and leave them in awe at the miracle of being human.