2017 In Review

2017 was tough.  Even setting aside the obvious travesty of Trump’s presidency, the past twelve months have battered me.  My closest friend was killed in a freak sledding accident.  My family’s cat of nearly twenty years died of renal failure.  My parents, married for 30+ years, separated.  My health suffered after months of working 100 hours a week; I developed a crippling viral pneumonia that left me wan and exhausted.  The sable talons of depression have sunk into my flesh once again.  And yet, I’m here.  Bruised, thin, quieter.  Wiser, kinder, more empathetic, more spontaneous, more appreciative of life’s precious tenuousness.  On net, a more complete person, but the transaction has been hell.  2017, I won’t miss you.

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Heroic Efforts

In the wake of the horrific Las Vegas shooting last week, there was–justifiably–a great deal of media coverage on the first responders, police, and healthcare workers whose actions saved hundreds of lives.  But there was also attention paid to the actions of ordinary citizens who risked their own safety to save others, and those stories prompted me to think about the untold heroes in our everyday world.  Contemporary society idolizes pop stars, Youtubers, Hollywood names, and sports players, but the true heroes reside among us:

The blue-collar construction worker who rises at 5 AM on a blustery January morning, sipping cheap 7-11 coffee from a thermos, frost on his beard, to pour asphalt on a new county road for $9 an hour to feed his wife and three daughters.

The fifteen-year-old, openly gay sophomore boy who faces daily jeers and abuse in the halls of his high school, routinely shoved into lockers, tripped in the cafeteria, and bullied online, to advance our social mores by an almost imperceptible margin.

The young black couple in inner-city Baltimore who determinedly raise their two sons to be upstanding, polite, scholarly men amid the crushing weight of poverty and neighborhood gang violence.

The first-generation college student from an uneducated rural Hispanic family who stays awake until 4 AM studying her pre-med coursework, sacrificing friendships and social engagements, to fulfill her dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

The 85-year-old widow with crippling rheumatoid arthritis and depression who grimaces through a 1/2-mile walk every Wednesday to read to elementary school foster kids at the local library.

The heroin addict struggling to come clean, bouncing in and out of rehab centers and methadone clinics, barely holding onto her waitress job, in order to give her 3-year-old daughter a better life.

The recently graduated, debt-strapped teacher who spends hours crafting original lesson plans, buying classroom supplies with his own food budget, because he is fixedly intent on not simply instructing but inspiring his students.

Often, when I walk the streets or in public places, I watch the people around me and wonder about their stories.  After the tragedy of last week, I am more certain than ever that each of them, and each of us, is heroic.

Russell

Our family cat Russell died this week.  He was eighteen years old.

My brother and I adopted Rus from a city animal shelter in the aftermath of the May 3rd 1999 tornado in Oklahoma City.  At the time, we were 9 and 12 years old, respectively.  Russ was three weeks old.  Over the ensuing two decades, we three boys grew up together.

When we adopted him, Rus weighed less than a pound and didn’t know how to drink water from a bowl.  My brother and I took turns dipping our fingers in water and letting Rus lick the drops.  For the remainder of his life, he “drank” by putting his paws in the water bowl and then licking them dry.  We build giant Lego houses for him in our bedroom.  We dressed him up as the Pope for one Halloween.  He was the reliable constant during our turbulent adolescent years.  He was fearless, intelligent, and fiercely loyal to his two boys.  He once chased a neighborhood kid into a bathroom because the kid had pantomimed punching my brother.  He slept in our beds at night, keeping some sort of internal schedule by which he rotated between my brother and me.  His favorite toys were rabbit foot tchotchkes.  We trained him to walk on a leash, and he loved going for long explorations outside.  He was the third son of our family.  We nicknamed him “Tubbs.”

By the time I was in medical school, Rus had developed diabetes.  Because he was otherwise healthy, we chose to treat him with insulin, and he thrived for another four wonderful years.  This week, the inexorable hand of age caught up with him, and he passed peacefully of kidney failure.  He fell asleep for the last time on his favorite blanket: a red Christmas tree skirt with white fringe.

It is hard to believe that you’re not here anymore, Russell; you were a constant for so many years.  I know you loved us as much as we loved you.  Thank you for everything.

I’ll miss you, Tubbs.

30

I turned 30 years old recently.  To mark the occasion, I want to reflect on my first three decades on Earth.

First, my regrets.  There are plenty.  From a professional standpoint, I regret entering medicine rather than law, as I feel I would have been better suited to the latter.  But of far greater importance, I regret the years I lost to depression.  From freshman year of college until well into medical school, I remonstrated myself daily over my own perceived shortcomings and allowed myself no pleasures or peace.  In doing so, I achieved perfect grades and exceptionally high test scores, but I missed out on everything that matters: reading in the park, laughing and drinking with friends, having a romantic partner, going on vacations, pursuing hobbies.  Instead of enjoying the halcyon days of youth, I despaired beneath a burden of intrusive thoughts, mental anguish, and physical exhaustion, a burden that nearly drove me to suicide in a dark Houston apartment.

My accomplishments and happy moments, I am grateful to say, far outnumber the regrets.  I enjoyed a sheltered middle-class childhood filled with the love of my parents and siblings, the company of close friends, and the support of great teachers.  Though it cost me dearly, I achieved academic success rivaled by few.  I have scuba dived in the Caribbean, have flown airplanes over endless stretches of wheat fields in the summertime, have helped thousands of patients at an inner-city medical clinic, have stood beneath the giant redwoods of California, have biked across the Golden Gate Bridge, have climbed the trails of the Rocky Mountains, have watched the crowds of Times Square, have sat upon the steps of the US Supreme Court, have sipped a latte at the original Starbucks store in Seattle, and have interacted with brilliant colleagues and mentors at top universities.  I have lived and worked in six countries across three continents.  In those travels, I have driven the Great Ocean Road out of Melbourne and seen the Twelve Apostles as a crimson sun set over Earth’s southernmost sea; have zip-lined through one of the planet’s only cloud forests; have visited humble Buddhist shrines and ornate Islamic mosques; have taken a centuries-old train up Mt. Victoria; have attended an F1 race under the lights and infinite wealth of downtown Singapore; and have smelled the roasting beans of coffee farms on the slopes of ancient volcanoes in San Jose.  I have advocated for LGBT rights.  I have taught chemistry and biology at a public high school and have impacted the lives of 150 students, helping them to think more broadly about science and about their world.

I have experienced much from life thus far, and I hope to experience more in the future.  I hope to write more extensively.  I hope to continue traveling and working in countries around the world.  I hope to better the health and lives of people around me through public health policy work.  I hope to return to teaching in some capacity.  I hope to find someone I love and who, somehow, loves me.

Here’s to the next 30 years.

 

Fourth of July

I recently returned from a short vacation to Spain, and in my first 10 minutes back on US soil, I encountered the feature that more than anything else defines the essence of the United States of America.  Today’s national holiday seems a fitting occasion to recount that experience.

An Asian American pilot landed our plane.  A white American female gate clerk wearing an LGBT pride lapel pin helped me with luggage.  A Muslim American customs agent checked my passport.  An Indian American custodian directed me to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts, where an African American employee and a Mexican American cashier prepared and rang up my coffee, respectively.

The USA has many problems, including an ongoing lack of tolerance in some sectors of society.  Yet, nothing makes me prouder to be American than the diversity of my fellow Americans.  Diversity is our country’s historical foundation, our most valuable economic asset, and our greatest strength going forward.  E pluribus unum.

Superpowers

Right now is the time of year when newly hired residents are starting their clinical work at the hospital, and as such, icebreakers abound.  Icebreakers are those painfully awkward questions that teachers, camp counselors, and HR professionals seem uniformly to believe represent the sole approach for introducing humans to one another.  The questions vary from the vapid–what is your favorite color?–to the strange–if you were a kitchen appliance, what would you be?–to the intrusive–what is your most embarrassing moment?  The answers to these questions are invariably as banal as the questions themselves; respondents give safe, socially normalized, uninformative replies–thereby providing no entertainment and failing to accomplish the icebreaker’s very purpose of acquainting people with one another.

In this spirit, I recently faced the timeless classic icebreaker, “If you were a superhero, what would be your superpower?”  Before the group of assembled residents, I gave one of the standard, well-worn replies: “To fly!” “Be invisible.”  “Walk through walls.”  But internally, I wondered: What, truly, would I want to be able to do, if I could do anything?  The answer came to me more quickly than expected.  I don’t want to run at light speed, to have superhuman strength, or to move objects with my mind.  I want to understand the human heart.  To assuage pain or shame or anger when people hurt.  To dismantle fears when they feel afraid.  To bolster resolve when they fail.  To celebrate joys when they love.

Turns out, I already possess this power.  We all do.  We exercise it in the moment when we give our seat to a weary stranger on the subway.  When we help an elderly widow with her groceries at the store.  When we smile and say “thank you” to the office janitor.  When we read books to shelter kids at the local library.  When we grab a beer with a friend and just listen to the crickets and the settling quiet of dusk.  When we pause for a moment, consider the feelings and worries and needs and dreams of the people around us, and act.  Then, we have superpowers.