I was reared all over the world due to my parents’ peregrinating professions, that of an international consulting mining engineer [my father] and an exploratory geologist [my mother] and learned to make friends quickly even as a preschooler. As I became a little older my mother kept gently encouraging me to really get to know people, as in her view, “everyone has a (life) story to tell.” Fortunately I was pretty social, friendly and forward for a boy and enjoyed meeting people. It helped witnessing my parents having “foreigners” over to our home constantly for dinner and wide ranging conversations exchanging life experiences. I learned very early on that all one had to do to get a more than ordinary conversation going, beyond simply saying hello or how are you, was to ask people something about themselves. Almost everyone except a CIA or NSA operative responds positively to that opening conversational gambit and I early on learn to revel in the unique and never-the-same life stories that I would hear from children my age and even adults. As one might guess, I became quickly comfortable talking with adults.
And I suppose this is one of the earliest and most telling background reasons why I became a psychiatrists. I love hearing others’ experiences even when tragic and pained and that is how I answer the perennial ordinary citizen’s constant question to me of “how do you stand hearing all those sad stories?”
Nowadays I am a two time cancer survivor, which of course, like everyone else who has or has had cancer of any kind, changes your perspective on life forever and in ways you cannot begin to appreciate ahead of time. I have treated and comforted many cancer patients my entire career and stupid me thought I had heard it all and was somehow well versed in the realities and personal effects of cancer and a little more ready for it when my time came. Stupid me again being narcissistically entrenched in my perennial intellectualism. In any case, my first and then my second cancers hit me like a ton of bricks as my father would say and felled me emotionally. I had all the usual self referent disbelief and dumb questions: Why me? Why now? etc. Luckily I am not and always try NOT to be a snob professional and separate myself from the persons I treat. I had more than my share of critiquing, some of it quite rigidly harsh from psychiatric supervisors who would rebuke me rather severely for conversing with my patients that I would chance to meet in the mall or public byways. I learned to keep my mouth shut about these encounters and did a lot of private work with my training analyst about this issue as I thought it was just plain rude, offensive, snobbish, and discourteous not acknowledge patients I saw in stores or the gas station or movie theater and talk with them about our social occasion. Rarely did my patients abuse these encounters and I knew to handle it deftly, interpret it diplomatically and not brusquely turn them away but to acknowledge their curiosity about me. Of course I was totally curious about my own analyst and fortunately he handled it all exquisitely well, nicely and taught how so to do as well and treat patients as people, not objects, the “great unwashed,” or persons somehow beneath me as some quite frankly overly rigid psychoanalytic schools of thought hold which I always regarded as a defense against being comfortable and humane with people.
As a current and continuing maintenance cancer patient, in what my oncologist and I call jokingly “virtual permanent remission,” thanks to unbelievable recent light year dimensioned advances in the treatment of my kind of cancer that virtually turns it into a chronic medical illness to be treated on a maintenance basis. I am having wonderful people experiences through my maintenance treatment modalities. I go regularly to my oncologist’s office and have blood drawn. I love thank God in a relatively small town whose long standing local hospital is so well run, that its leaders saw some years ago the need and wisdom to affiliate with the area’s huge medical schools’ systems and another non-medical school hospital teaching complex. These three centers are nearly world class and in the top 50 rankings of hospitals in the US annually. Our small city/large town’s hospital is now very well capitalized, has been able to attract all kinds of super duper sub-sub-specialists in medical fields that no town this size would have otherwise. And this system is a joy to deal with. Phone calls are returned, your records are your own, follow up is a breeze, appointments are not delayed, urgent or emergent care is incredibly available and expert to a fault. I recall being a patient through the years at three different medical school institutions and they were all BEARS to deal with. Securing anything one needed was a supreme hassle and took forever on the phone or even in person. And being a physician myself, though I took overly humble care NOT to ever introduce myself by phone or in person at the clinic reception desk as “Doctor Miller,” did not help at all. Everybody was frankly treated like drek and a number. It was awful years ago and is no better now, from the tales my grown children tell me who still live in those medical school communities where they happened to grow up due to the locations of my positions and work.
Presently, I am receiving irradiation treatments for pain of lesions in bony places that hurt with movement and just plain doing things and working. It sounds ominous but is also so effective that it is part of the maintenance aspect of my ongoing illness and does not bode ill for my future, longevity or prognosis, unlike many other persons’ cancers. My irradiation treatment modality is a specialized kind and our area shares a “traveling atomic-mobile” as I and my new geezer male peer group call it who utilize it for all our different cancers. It is based at the big medical center an hour’s drive away and travels around to four locations servicing our area. All us geezers correspondingly commute early in the mornings four or five days a week to whichever hamlet/town in the two adjacent counties where it happens to be stationed that day and receive our treatments. Our group has turned into a peer support group, a therapy group, and a sort of barbershop guys group. I of course started it all off introducing myself to each fellow every time a new guy would appear and do my usual gently inquiry of who are you, where do you live, what do you do, or what kind of work did you do? etc. No one brushes me off. The irradiation techs routinely now joke that they have to tear us away from our tall tales and joke sessions to get us into our treatments. And lo and behold we do not leave after our treatment stint is completed, which for most of us takes only 15 minutes or so. We stay in the waiting room and chew the fat even more for enjoyment.
And of course every once in a while we learn sadly that one of our number is seriously ill in the hospital or has passed away. We pay them due respect and twice already some of us have attended their funerals.
So I have nicknamed us the “Brotherhood of the Traveling Beam,” referring to our mobile irradiation treatment beam “RV,” and the name has stuck. One fellow, a very enterprising sort, is thinking of going on the Internet and having teeshirts made up for each of with that meme on the chest of the shirts so now we could wear them and indulge ourselves in our inside joke.. One of the funny asides in this little tale is that I had to explain the pseudo-literary origin of my made up title for our little social cancer support group. I started by saying in my own family and extended family, we always had and have nicknames for everyone, that mine was “Pancho Villa,” etc., and that I have a brother-in-law who belongs to a competitive Texas chili cooking club called the “Dirty Leg Chili Club.” They have a tee shirt that shows a dirty, hairy legged, unshaven, grungy hung-over guy with a beer can in his hand, the chili stirrer in the other and cigarette with a long ash hanging out of his mouth. The kicker is that his hairy leg is also in the chili pot. With that “guy” segue, it was a bit easier to spring it on them that my name for our fluid group came from the “chick lit” book Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. While they thought that was funny, it did take a little getting used to for them. But it helped a bit later when in the waiting room “conflab” one of the gents, revealed that his wife had “read that book and it was funny.”
Our one outstanding common joke/wish that we sustain in good humor, is that with all the resurgent Superhero subculture nowadays, such as the Hulk, and other superheroes who become super strong after some freak accident of irradiation of some sort, we keep wondering when is that going to happen to one of us? We have had one hilarious conversation about the various tv characters such as the Flash and new and old comic book characters of this revived genre and it was certainly good for the spirits. I told my adopted 15 year old son who is into that whole world and thought it was funny but became a little uncomfortable when I revealed the genre’s history, that many of these figures go back to the pre-World War II years, how old Stan Lee really is and son. He made me promise not to tell his friends…