As a doctor, some of my most transformative experiences are when patients walk through the door and share with me the tragedies in their lives—their children who die before them; their spouses who desert them for a younger woman; their chronic back pain that is unrelenting after three surgeries…..I listen with my heart wide open to my patients’ gripping stories every single day, even if their heartache has absolutely nothing to do with the reason for their visit.
I have always secretly wished that physicians could somehow escape these tragedies, as our supportive roles are often all-consuming. Let’s face it….how can physicians deal with tragedy at home and at work? But, are they in fact less likely to experience personal hardships due to their temperament or education? Do they have thicker skin, or have they developed immunity to life’s challenges? I often wonder about the physicians to whom we entrust our patients, whom I see at the hospital at 10:00 at night comforting sick patients at their bedsides, who leave social events before the meal is served to rush to the emergency rooms. What are their lives like behind closed doors when they are not with their patients (which is not often, but nevertheless important)? None of us hear much about their challenges, their insecurities, their battles, their failures, or their losses.
A couple months ago, I received a book in my mailbox at my office: Even Doctors Cry by Alvin Reiter MD. I won’t lie to you…I was a bit scared when I thought about why someone would send me a book about doctors crying. Did I have a mortal enemy who was looking to give me a “heads up” before making my life living hell? Was this a hidden message sent from an ex-boyfriend? I thought for a moment about the title and read further. It was about a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills….huh? Was the Beverly Hills plastic surgeon crying? I got curious. Was he crying for joy?
Practicing near Beverly Hills, I often peer through the expansive windows of the luxurious, impeccably decorated offices of our country’s finest plastic surgeons. Every year, more freshly minted doctors join this elite group who will take care of nearly all of Hollywood’s most famous celebrities and some of our country’s wealthiest individuals. Most will drive beautiful cars and make, at least, seven figure incomes. Many of them are very attractive and have exceptional charisma and confidence. TV networks that feature Beverly Hills plastic surgeons make handsome profits from the millions of viewers intrigued by these doctors’ skills and lifestyle. What could make Beverly Hills plastic surgeons cry….with all the rewards, prestige, and overwhelming enthusiasm for their craft?
I packed the book to take with me on our summer vacation and gave it to my Mom to read on the plane while I was eating my lunch. As soon as she opened the book, she didn’t notice her grandkids climbing on top of her, my Dad shoving her to go to the bathroom….or me… telling her three times that it was time to get off the plane! My husband started reading the book next. A strikingly similar phenomenon occurred. I didn’t exist for two days. For the few moments when I did exist, he would recite excerpts of the book to me. But, when was I supposed to open this book that was gifted to me?
Several months later, I had a moment to open the book. I tried so hard to resist it, but I too became sucked into the vortex….what time was it…2:00 AM already? Food just didn’t matter that day. I was completely baffled by the irony of the book. Here was a famous Beverly Hills physician whose career demanded him to achieve perfect aesthetic results for thousands of high profile clients for decades. But despite creating the external appearance of perfection every day for the world around him, he was simultaneously treading a tumultuous life. He was overwhelmed by imperfections, failures….even fraud. He was manipulated by deceptive and greedy colleagues. He encountered battles with life-threatening diseases, medical-legal accusations, and treatments by heartless physicians who made deadly mistakes….to name just a few of his personal challenges.
Very few doctors have the time or perspective to wear their heart on their sleeves and tell the story of their lives with no inhibitions. Why didn’t the author just rest on his laurels of having a multi-million dollar career, stunning home, highly respected job, and the opportunity to enjoy retirement in peace–and with no controversy?
I applaud Dr. Alvin Reiter for his courage. Many of us continue to hang onto the illusion that our country’s most prized surgeons are steady as rocks and impervious to the vicissitudes of life. But many of these doctors are crying. The author had the courage to share a story that must be shared with both doctors and patients. BE PREPARED—- by no means does the book sugarcoat the medical profession. It doesn’t paint physicians as heroes or side with all doctors…even though it is written by a physician. It is a gripping story that inflames, infuriates, and motivates us to become passionate healthcare advocates for ourselves and our loved ones.
As doctors, we spend most of our days listening to the deeply personal stories of our patients. But it is rare that we even get a brief glimpse into the personal struggles of our colleagues. As hectic as our medical careers are, we should all reserve a pocket of time to learn about the unadulterated reality of other physicians’ lives. In Even Doctors Cry, Dr. Alvin Reiter is completely vulnerable and candid. We are privileged to learn his views about healthcare delivery since he has taken on nearly every major role in the healthcare system—provider, business owner, colleague, caregiver, and patient. I am grateful that I finally got my chance to read his engrossing story …..and have a good cry too.
Melinda Hakim MD: Dr. Hakim is an ophthalmologist in Los Angeles and a graduate of Harvard University and The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She is the founder of DoctorCPR.com, a medical career site and marketplace that serves over 500,000 medical professionals across America.