Friday, March 1, 2013

A tribute to two gentle souls

When I was a first year medical student in Chicago in the late 1990s, my entire class received an email stating that a local retired blind physician was looking for students to come over to his home to read medical journals aloud to him.  At first, I was so caught up in trying to memorize anatomy and histology that I didn't have the chance to respond to the notice.  Months later, a female classmate of mine came up to me during improv comedy practice and told me that she had been reading for this blind physician for a few months but could no longer keep it up.  She asked if I'd be willing to take her spot.  He would pay $20 per hour, she said.  Sure, I said.  Why not?

A week or so later, I found myself taking the El from downtown Chicago to Lincoln Park, where this blind physician and his wife resided.  I didn't know what to expect, but I was more than ready to recite results and data tables from JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine.  For $20 an hour, it wasn't bad at all!  I was very warmly greeted by both the physician and his wife, who lived in a three story townhome on a quiet street that was beautifully and quite artistically decorated inside.  Since I will not divulge their names for matters of privacy, I will refer to them as Dr. and Mrs. X.  Dr. and Mrs. X were both in their 70s and had been married for several decades.  They were an adorable couple, and one could tell from the onset that they loved each other and were still in love with each other.  It was really wonderful to see how tender they were with one another.  Dr. X had been trained as a general and plastic surgeon around the time of World War II.  Mrs. X, retired, had been one of Chicago's most prominent public relations executives.  While my dates may be off, my understanding is that he was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor sometime in the 1950s and underwent an operation, during which he suffered injury to his optic nerve and was left permanently blind.  While I would wager to say that most surgeons who have lost their vision would give up hope of ever practicing again, such was not the case with Dr. X.  Armed with a passion for medicine and the human condition, he quickly retrained himself in the field of psychiatry and pursued a career as an active psychiatrist for the rest of his working life.  When I saw him for the first time sitting their in his study with his sunglasses, he truly looked like a gentle soul.  And a little like the British jazz pianist George Shearing.

I started out reading an article from JAMA for Dr. X.  It surprised me at the time that anyone could sit through an oral account of a medical journal article, but Dr. X sat there quietly, intently listening and occasionally asking me to repeat a passage.  After a few pages, we changed tunes, and he asked me to read him some clippings from the recent Chicago Tribune.  And so the time passed for the duration of an hour, at the end of which Dr. X handed me a $20 bill and asked me to return in 2 weeks.

Little did I know that this was only the beginning of what was to become a wonderful friendship.  In the ensuing weeks, JAMA was replaced entirely by the Chicago Tribune.  Dr. X began to share with me anecdotes from his life story -- his time in the Navy, working as a surgeon at the University of Chicago (if memory serves me correctly, he started the burn unit at the U of C Hospital), his tragic intra-operative loss of vision, his return to medicine as a psychiatrist.  I would have to say that he was a physician in the tradition of Sir William Osler.  It was clear to me that he was genuinely and selflessly dedicated to the care of his patients.  Medicine was not a business but a service to humanity.  In addition, he had a wonderful sense of humor.  As a first year medical student just learning how to communicate professionally with patients, Dr. X was an inspiration.  He then inquired about me, and I proceeded to share with him my own life history, from my upbringing in the western suburbs of Chicago to my college years at Northwestern University to my latest challenges as a medical student.  He was always a patient and sensitive listener, offering little wisdoms at opportune moments.  Mrs. X frequently joined us in these conversations, and I found her to be just as gentle a soul as her husband.

Dr. and Mrs. X had a black console piano on the second level of their home which Dr. X used to play.  He rarely played any more, although he was still an avid fan of music.  He frequently asked me to sit and play for him, and I was more than happy to do so.  Interestingly enough, he not only bore a faint resemblance to but was also a great fan of George Shearing, the internationally renowned British jazz pianist who also happened to be blind.  He loved listening to George Shearing's recordings.  Perhaps Dr. X felt a connection with George Shearing because they were both blind.  Who knows?  I never formally asked him that question.  To the side of the piano was a low-lying bookshelf which contained a collection of books as well as a few dozen vinyl records.

So for a year and a half, I visited Dr. and Mrs. X at their home every two weeks.  What began as reading medical journals for Dr. X evolved into visiting close friends, and although he and his wife both insisted on compensating me for my time, I politely decline payment.  We had become friends, and in many regards, I came to view Dr. and Mrs. X as grandparent-like figures in my life.  We'd chat about all sorts of things, but most of the time I enjoyed listening to Dr. X share with me stories from his past.  Sometimes he'd repeat himself, but I didn't mind.

After my second year of medical school, I left Chicago for a year of research at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, and unfortunately that put the brakes on my routine visits.  I kept in touch with Dr. and Mrs. X, though, and we'd periodically catch up over the telephone.  During my year in Maryland, I bought my first turntable and began taking an interest in collecting vinyl records.  I told Dr. and Mrs. X about my enthusiasm and excitement about this new hobby, and they mentioned that they also had a small record collection and that some time in the future I should come by and take a look.  I thanked them for the invitation and said that I'd love the opportunity.  Things were going well for both of them until one day I called and found out that Dr. X had fallen from the stairs in his home.  He had survived the fall but had sustained some injuries.  From the tone of her voice, I could tell that Mrs. X was worried about her husband.  Not long thereafter, Dr. X passed away, news which saddened me deeply.

When I returned to Chicago in the summer of 2002, I called up Mrs. X to see how she was doing.  I could tell that she missed her husband dearly.  How could she not, after having shared most of her adult life with this man?  We met a couple of times, mostly at the P.J. Clark's on State Street, which had been one of her favorite places to hang out.  We talked about her health.  We talked about Dr. X and how we both missed him.  She shared with me some of her stories from her past career as a public relations executive.  I remember her telling me a story about how she arranged a big event for some big names in Chicago and got Stevie Wonder to perform there.  These kinds of things were the norm for her during the peak of her career.

With the return to medical school came the beginning of my clinical rotations and the end of much of my free time.  Hours were spent in the hospital, and more hours were spent studying at home in my apartment or, perhaps more importantly, catching up on lost sleep.  I tried to call Mrs. X from time to time, sometimes catching her at home and other times not.  I wondered if she was doing okay.

Then on one summer day as I began my last year of medical school, I received a letter in the mail.  I checked the sender's address, and it was stamped with the name of a law firm.  Crap, I thought.  Was I already being named in a medical lawsuit??  I hadn't even begun to practice!  After anxiously tearing the envelope open, I discovered that my initial worry was unfounded but was instantly brought down by the news of the letter.  Mrs. X had just passed away.  In the letter, I was being asked to give her lawyer a call at my earliest convenience.

Metastatic colon cancer was the diagnosis, one which I had no clue that she had.  Mrs. X had never wanted to burden anyone with her illness, explained her lawyer, a really friendly fellow who had known her well in the last several years.  She had passed away quietly at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.  I don't know and guess I never will know if anyone was with her at the bedside when she died.  She and Dr. X had never had any children, and I didn't recall hearing much about any local family.  It made me sad to think that I could very well have passed by her hospital room while I was working without even knowing that she was there. 

As it turns out, in her will Mrs. X left to me her husband's personal record collection.  When the lawyer told me this, I was speechless.  I honestly didn't know what to say.  I was so moved that she had thought about me.  Would I be happy to meet him at their home this coming Saturday, asked the lawyer.  Yes, thank you, I replied, and marked it on my calendar.

A few dozen records returned to my apartment with me that Saturday afternoon, mostly an eclectic mix of jazz records from the '60s and mostly George Shearing.  Also in there was a record of Ernest Hemingway reading his own works and a record of the actress Ingrid Bergman.  It wasn't so much the actual albums that mattered to me but that I was able to preserve a memory of my two dear friends.  I will say, however, that one of the albums, "The Way We Are" with the George Shearing Quintet on the MPS label, has become one of my all-time favorite jazz albums. 

Mrs. X passed away 10 years ago last month, Dr. X a year before that.  I will always remember the wonderful mornings I spent with them at their home, reading aloud the newspaper, playing the piano, laughing over life stories, and being blessed with the opportunity to share a brief moment in the lives of these two gentle souls.


  1. What a moving story and an interesting duo you had the privilege of meeting in your life! This reminds me of something we were talking about in school the other day, which was the health improvements brought on by story telling and reading aloud to people (or having a story read aloud to us). Although I am sure there is no "science" behind why reading aloud to someone is both physically and emotionally invigorating, there's no doubt that doing so will enrich the physical and emotional lives of all parties involved. If only one morning a week were taken to reading a story aloud to someone, or having a story read aloud to us, we would all have a deeper and more secure sense of community in our lives. Sounds like that is exactly what you shared with Dr. and Mrs. X and is a beautiful lesson to us all!

  2. Great story. It must be terrible to lose one's sight. How lucky Dr. X was to have you - and you him, as well.