Tuesday, November 17, 2020

64 Days to Fresh Start: Is There a Doctor in the Family?

 It occurred to me the other day, or is it weeks or maybe even months—who knows, time distinctions seem to have evaporated in my pandemic-addled mind—that my friends and family of mostly Jewish men and women generally failed to live up to their parents’ expectations. 

Not a single medical doctor among them. Except for my cousin Michael, a neurologist, and a pediatrician. Some dentists and psychiatrists, a couple of optometrists, but no internists or specialists. And, of course, my wife is a nurse practitioner which in many respects is the equivalent of the Norman Rockwell-type general practitioner doctor of yore. Lots of lawyers, several accountants (it used to be said lawyers and accountants were the ones who would faint at the “sight “of blood), and a few who would make my father proud—they are or were in “business.” 

(Here’s a digression—It would have been just as “insightful” if I had written the lawyers and accountants would faint at the “site” of blood. A vivid example of why homonyms make English one of the more difficult languages to master. Here’s also hoping this blog post is not “inciteful” and cause any rifts in friendship. Ah, English, the language that keeps on giving.)

Come to think of it, the failings of my cohort to appropriately populate the medical field could also be applied to our children, the next generation.

If it were necessary to call out in our pre-pandemic synagogue days, “Is there a doctor in the house?”, embarrassed silence generally would be the response. Attorneys might squirm in their seats as they considered their doctorates of jurisprudence, and a few dentists might raise their hands, but for the preponderance of congregants a medical degree is as foreign to them as a vacation trip to Lake of the Ozarks. Or Branson, MO. 

For the most part that antipathy toward blood has prevailed in my friends’ and extended family’s children as well, unless you consider lawyers and investment bankers blood suckers.

Yes, one couple’s youngest child is a pulmonary critical care fellow at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Another couple’s son is a fellow at a California hospital, while two others have children engaged in biomedical research. 

Oh, and then there is the daughter of a dear friend married to a doctor who specializes, shall we say, in alternative treatments. He is a  witch doctor. No kidding. He earned his shaman degree in South Africa, but since they are currently living in Europe I doubt he is practicing much these days.

My brother, sister and I have nine first cousins. Of the 12 of us, one became a neurologist, two optometrists, one lawyer, one psychiatric social worker/teacher, one technology salesperson, one technology technician, one musician, one journalist, and three who followed in their fathers’ footsteps and became jewelers, though one of those at first was a policeman. Aside from Gilda’s degree and another wife who became a nurse, our spousal collection has no medical representation. 

None of our 16 collective children have entered the medical field, not to become doctors, nurses, dentists or eye care specialists. I am in no way disparaging any of their professions, or those of my generation, but clearly there has been a shift in cultural priorities. None of their spouses are medical professionals, either.

When my brother Bernie advised our father he would major in political science on his way to becoming a lawyer, Dad’s response was not a rousing endorsement. Though in Poland he never attended school past sixth grade, and earned a General Education Diploma after coming to New York in 1939, Dad considered himself the equal of any lawyer, probably because he didn’t have a high opinion of most lawyers. 

The consequence of Bernie’s choice of profession was that I became the object of my parents’ hopes. A second lawyer in the family was not to be countenanced. (Here’s another aside—in case you’re wondering about our sister, Lee, there was never any significant consideration of her professional future. Her degree, the reasoning went, was to be consummated with a Mrs. before her name. She had to fight for their financial support to become a psychiatric social worker.)

Back to my future, circa 1966, the year I graduated from high school. Why not become a rabbi, my parents proposed. My being less than religiously observant didn’t phase them. As for having to write weekly sermons, they said there were plenty of books available from which I could pinch a homily. 

If leading a congregation didn’t appeal to me, how about being a dentist? D’s in freshmen and sophomore biology and chemistry quickly disabused them of that possibility. 

Time was running out to pick a major by my junior year at Brooklyn College. I started taking accounting courses en route to a degree in economics. But the thought of all day putting numbers into little boxes on accounting paper was even more revolting than my antipathy toward blood. 

Fortunately, when I wasn’t wasting time with my house plan (it’s like a fraternity) buddies in the school cafeteria I became the editor of a college newspaper. My parents humored my desire to be a journalist. They even paid my tuition to obtain a master’s degree from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. 

Apart from choosing a life partner, perhaps the most difficult decision one encounters is picking a profession, a calling. As a society we have largely evolved from the practice of parents projecting their desires onto their children. Still, I can’t help but wonder if our society has lost some of its altruism, the idea that a vocation has more to it than merely the accumulation of wealth, that part of any job choice should include an appreciation of what that employment can give back to society. 

I didn’t choose any of the paths my parents wanted for me, even when they suggested I join their small apparel manufacturing business for $25,000 a year compared to the $7,800 The New Haven Register offered to be a reporter. 

It worked out for me and my family. After earning a political science degree, Gilda achieved one of her life goals by becoming a nurse, then a nurse practitioner. Our son and daughter pursued careers they chose not because the professions promised the best financial return but rather because the work would be the most emotionally rewarding.

Not everyone can be as fortunate as Gilda and I have been. There is no denying the mesmerizing power of dollar signs have altered the priorities of more than one generation. You can choose to say if that is good or bad, but you cannot ignore the reality.