My Story: Part 2

By | June 18, 2018 | 5 Comments



I grew up in San Francisco and attended public elementary, junior high, and high schools. There were no shootings in these multi-ethnic, middle-class schools. But there were guns. I took ROTC and learned to shoot a .22 rifle ‒ not an air rifle ‒ in the rifle range in the basement of George Washington High School. We drilled with Garand M1 rifles with the firing pins removed, not with the plastic toys used today.

I was handed my first gun by Master Sergeant Lee, who had combat decorations including a Purple Heart. Do you suppose that I formed a different idea of the purpose of a gun than if I had been handed my first gun by the local gang leader or drug dealer? Do you suppose that is why I saw a gun as a tool to defend freedom, rather than a tool to rob convenience stores? There were no stabbings, either, although most of us boys carried knives ‒ Boy Scout knives.

Do you suppose that the Scouts and the ROTC helped boys become men, not just sexually mature males? Do you suppose that there is a connection between kicking out the Boy Scouts and ROTC, and the recent increase in school stabbings and shootings? Do you suppose that the decline in religious education also may have played a role?

San Francisco of those days had large Irish and Italian populations, so the St. Patrick’s Day and Columbus Day parades were big events. Our ROTC unit marched in both. The older boys asked our sergeants where the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse would be, and we were assured it would be behind us. But the posse was popular, so it was always near the head of the parade. Thus at an early age I learned two important lessons:

  1. Don’t always believe what authority figures tell you.
  2. Be careful to avoid the horse manure.

My grades were good enough to be admitted to U.C. Berkeley. All men had to take two years of ROTC, as was true in most public universities. Patriotism was not on the class schedule, but it was taught. Because I had three years in high school, I only had to take one year at Berkeley, leaving more time for pre-med. I applied to medical school and was assigned two interviewers.

The first was sympathetic, and I thought my chances were good. But the second interviewer was hostile. He claimed I had an accent and said “goink” instead of “going.” Perhaps because of this interviewer, I was not admitted to medical school in the first round, though a classmate with lower grades was admitted. I was admitted in the second round, but by that time my father had died of a heart attack at age 59 and never knew I got in. Bigotry has many, far-reaching effects.

On the first day of medical school, we were assigned cadavers for dissection. Our group of four had to turn our cadaver over, so we could begin on the back. Handling a cold, formaldehyde-smelling corpse was an interesting initiation to a career. Our chief anatomy lecturer, Dr. Ian Monie, was from Glasgow, so we became familiar with a thick Scottish burr.

A neurology professor, Dr. Donald Macrae, was also a Scot, but his accent was more musical, almost Irish. Later I learned that he was born on the Isle of Lewis, where Gaelic is the first language, explaining the man’s accent. I also learned that he had been awarded the Military Cross, the third highest award for bravery under fire in the UK, most unusual for a medical officer. The citation was signed by Generals Montgomery and Alexander.

Another native of Lewis was Mary Ann McLeod Trump, the President’s mother. Perhaps that explains his red hair and independent streak.

The third year of medical school was at the old San Francisco General Hospital. I began in the Emergency Room, which was understaffed and underequipped. I was introduced to the underside of modern society. I saw homeless persons ‒ in those days we called them “bums.” I saw two young Marines in uniform with shotgun wounds ‒ one in the leg who survived, one in the back who did not. The only way I can describe a close-range shotgun wound is “purée.”

For a hint of what things were like, watch the film “Bullitt.” The car chase is a classic, but the scenes of the old County Hospital are revealing.

Usually arriving ambulances let the siren run down as they approached the loading dock. But one night an ambulance let out a real siren blast. This was the signal for a “hot one,” causing the intern and the gray-haired nurse to run to the door. Well, it was a “hot one” ‒ a large man with his throat cut ear-to-ear, and his white tee shirt stained solid red. Within 10 minutes the anesthesia resident had pushed in two units of blood, and the chief surgical resident was moving the patient to the operating room. For many years, when there was a gory scene in a movie, I thought I smelled blood.

I learned that modern buildings and shiny equipment were nice, but competent, dedicated people could still save your life despite working in an old dump with rusty tools. I resolved to become one of those people.

One day an ambulance brought in a young boy, he looked about 10, who had been hit by a car and was in a coma. I was given the job of shaving his head in preparation for neurosurgery. We had no electric clippers, so I used a razor blade clamped in a hemostat. Our full-time Catholic chaplain, Father Feder, came to administer Last Rites. As I clumsily shaved away, I reached down when the priest reached up, and I got a drop of the holy oil on my hand. Officially, I joined the medical profession when I took the Hippocratic Oath at graduation. But in retrospect, I believe I joined it when the oil touched my hand.

During my residency in internal medicine, I joined the Army Reserve. I had the honor of serving with a General Hospital unit. Many of the physicians had shoulder patches of units from World War II and Korea. Our pharmacist was a former Marine. He ran the rifle range. I did well with standing, kneeling, and prone, but I just couldn’t fit the sitting position, and I was careless where I pointed the M1 carbine. I still shrivel recalling the thundering voice of the range master shouting, “Tell that officer to keep his muzzle pointed down range!” Every Marine is a rifleman, even if he is a pharmacist.

Coming back from summer training one year, I was involved in a head-on collision at 50 mph. Both cars were demolished, the wrong-way driver was killed, his wife was seriously injured, and I got out of the hospital the next day and took a 150-mile trip home on a Greyhound bus. I learned that if it was your time you went, but if it wasn’t you stayed. I also learned other lessons.

I returned to work with a marked limp from a torn knee cartilage. A gray-haired ward clerk I knew as a kindly lady greeted me with a loud, “Hello, crip!” If a health-care worker showed so little sympathy for the disabled, what could we expect from ordinary people?

My professor saw the fresh 14-stitch scar on my eyebrow and the limp, but he cut me no slack. When I lagged behind climbing stairs, he and his entourage just walked away. I received a mediocre evaluation. I was straining to do the work despite physical and emotional pain. But to him I was just mediocre. If a professor of medicine shows no empathy for a colleague, what could we expect from ordinary doctors for ordinary patients, with whom they have much less in common?

People who survive serious accidents, illnesses, or combat sometimes say, “I shouldn’t be here.” If they mean the odds were against them, they’re right. But if they mean it literally, they’re wrong. If I shouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be here. If I am still here, there is a purpose, and it’s up to me to find it.

After training in internal medicine, I subspecialized in medical oncology, then a new field. It was an unforgettable experience to care for patients who had been told by others that nothing more could be done. Most of our patients were uninsured or indigent. But we also cared for the wife of a consul, the brother of a professor, and an aerospace engineer. They all got the best we had to offer.

It is true that persons with insurance tend to get better care, especially preventive care. But we must be careful not to equate health insurance with health care. The physicians, nurses, technicians, and allied personnel at my public hospital, and so many like them, devote their lives to caring for those who lack insurance. To imply that persons who lack insurance get no care is to spit on these dedicated professionals.

If standard therapy was exhausted, patients were offered experimental therapy. That way, even if they did not improve, they had the satisfaction of contributing to knowledge that might help others. And I had the satisfaction of helping train young physicians to see patients as human beings, not just as examples of diseases.

Granted, working in an academic environment has problems. They call it a “university” or a “school,” but teaching excellence is ignored almost completely. In fact, in all my undergraduate education, my graduate education, my residency, and my two fellowships, the only training I ever received in how to teach a class was a one-hour film all the officers in my Army Reserve unit had to watch annually. Is it any wonder that university and graduate-school teaching is often abysmal?

I saved the best for last. I thought dating was work, and I hated being fixed up. But I was fixed up during my fellowship, and I met the most beautiful, intelligent, vibrant woman I had ever known. Stefanie and I recently observed our 52nd wedding anniversary, so we must be doing something right. She is an author and a clinical psychologist. She passed her psychology licensing exam easily ‒ living with me, she had experience with most varieties of psychopathology.

Ups and downs, professional problems and health scares, good times and bad – there she is, at my side. What I did to deserve such good fortune I do not know. What I do know is that I should express gratitude to Stefanie for sticking by me all these years, and gratitude to the Almighty for the years.

Then, after retiring, I established this website. I hope that I continue to play at least a small role in widening people’s perspective and advancing Judeo-Christian and American values. And yes, I do believe that those values are superior to others, and are worth preserving and fighting for. Have I done everything I was meant to do? Absolutely not. But I ain’t done yet.

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