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So many lawyers, so little time...

"The prospect of hanging focuses the mind wonderfully"--Samuel Johnson

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Location: Louisville, KY, United States

Gastroenterologist, cyclist, cellist, Christian, husband, father, grandfather.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

A narrative

In the late 80's I found myself mired down as a semi-permanent employee of a small group practice in a small town. It was bad match from the start, and after considerable soul-searching I decided to pack up the family and move to the big city, where I would start over as a solo practitioner.

This was in the pre-Katie Couric era, when few had heard of colonoscopy and those that had heard of it believed it to be some sort of Medieval torture. Referrals were not abundant, so all gastroenterologists faced the prospect of sitting in their office, staring at the walls and wondering when the next new patient appointment would come in.

As I had neither trained nor been raised in this big city, I had no reason to believe that patients would be pounding on my door. I assumed I would starve to death and have to give my children up for adoption and put my wife to work in the local Waffle House (noble work, to be sure, but it doesn't pay all that well). Under such circumstances it is easy, instinctive really, for us to turn to God, to pray that He would "give us this day our daily bread".

I remember listening to a Chuck Swindoll sermon about faith in the marketplace. It's been a while, and I'm quoting only as best as I recall:

One business owner in our community had always put the "bottom line" ahead of ethical considerations. Although he was successful, he experienced an emptiness which no amount of money could fill. He turned his life over to God and dedicated his business to Him, vowing that from that point on he would conduct his business with the highest of ethical standards.

Not long after his conversion, he got a call.

"You've got to come quick! Your business is burning down!" he was told.

Upon arriving at his business place, he saw that indeed an uncontrollable fire had broken out and that the business he had worked so hard on in his life had just burned to the ground. His associates thought he appeared oddly unconcerned about the course of events. They asked him why.

"Well," he replied, "I dedicated this business to the Lord, and He can take it as a burnt sacrifice if He wants to."

One can debate God's role in this. Perhaps He did want the business for Himself; perhaps His only involvement was a permissive one, choosing not to strike some street thug arsonist dead for trying to impress his gang. But it made sense to the business owner. Seen through the eyes of faith and believing that God is in control and that our lives are a narrative of His action, this event would be just one more chapter of a story that will make sense in the fullness of time.

I dedicated my practice, such as it was, to God. Soon I had more work that I could handle, and financially we were secure.

During the next decade I succumbed to my workaholism. I wasn't interested in fame or fortune; I just wanted to prove to the world that this dumb old Army doc and son of a dirt-farmer could make it as a first-rate physician.

Then the lawsuits came. The first, which went to trial and in which I prevailed, left me bitter. The second, which I settled for a non-trivial amount of money in spite of some urging not to, left me defeated. The third, again settled for a non-trivial amount of money, left me crushed. I expressed to my defense attorney that maybe I should just get out of medicine. He told me, "If it makes you fell better, you're an excellent doctor whose been at the wrong place at the wrong time and has been royally "f--'d. I've never seen anything like it."

Well, it didn't make me feel better. I feel a little like the business owner looking on the burning of his business, knowing that his life will never be the same. It's not that my practice has been reduced to smoke and ashes, but it has been soaked in kerosene, waiting for the next malcontent to toss a cigarette butt on it in the form of a nuisance lawsuit.

Maybe I'd feel a little better about the whole thing if I understood what it meant. Am I being punished for the sin of workaholism (or something else? There's plenty to choose)? Am I being toughened up for some bigger challenge about to enter my life? Is it that it's simply time to move on and I'm so dense to God's guidance that He has to lead me by the nose?

My consolation is that these questions have been asked by men far better than I. Listen to the complaint of the psalmist:

Tell me, what's going on, GOD?...What am I doing in the meantime, Lord? Hoping, that's what I'm doing--hoping you'll save me from a rebel life, save me from the contempt of dunces.
I'll say no more. I'll shut my mouth, since you, Lord, are behind all this.
But I can't take it much longer...GOD, listen to to my prayer, my cry--open you ears. Don't be callous; just look at these tears of mine. I'm a stranger here. I don't know my way--a migrant like my whole family.
Give me a break, cut me some slack before it's too late and I'm out of here.

Psalm 39:4-13, taken from "The Message".


Blogger MeTooThen said...


I read this post with interest.

Many patients, as your experience has taught you, confuse the circumstances of their lives, with who they are, e.g. "PWA", Person with Aids, as just one of seemingly limitless number of examples.

But physicians, too, fall into this same trap. Their monetary success, academic rank, or involvement in malpractice litigation (whether or not they were at fault) is often the fuel that fires their narcissistic awe or narcissistic rage, as the latter case may be.

This all too often leads to the problems that befalls so many physicians; substance abuse and dependency, burn-out, divorce, depression, suicide, and early death.

Reducing their view of themselves and their world to the "if only..." you can see how this happens.

Serving G-d and the community, no matter how one defines success, is usually difficult and often painful.

The advice I give to my patients, and to many physicians, is first, through self-love, find compassion for yourself, and forgive yourself. Once having done that, you can then forgive others. No longer will your rage linger and fester, as this is symptomatic of your resistance to what is.

Love and compassion.
Forgiveness and humility.
Prayer and faith.

These are the tools that made you a great doctor. They are also the tools that will enable you to find comfort.

5:32 PM  

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