Making Doctors

I grew up around doctors.

My dad was the Dean of Georgetown Medical School. He was an administrator, lecturer, researcher, clinician and editor of medical journals over a 50 year career.

He was a wicked smart guy.

He met my mom when he was in medical school and she was a nursing student at Georgetown. His entire social circle was doctors and their wives. That’s the life in which I grew up.

It was the early 1960s suburban lifestyle. My dad was the king of Washington, D.C.’s medical community. My mom was the bejeweled, frosted-hair spouse and consummate partner and co-host. They tripped the life fantastic. Gin-soaked pool parties, bridge nights, Dixieland jazz on the console stereo, catered parties for med school faculty, private schools for the kids.

Ironic though: My folks had five kids and not one of us went into medicine. Generally, they let us find our own way. But perhaps I came the closest. Or at least considered it.

That story: In the summer of my 17th year, I got arrested on my way to the annual end-of-school-year “beach week” that we Uptown Catholics from the D.C. Suburbs participated in every year.

The charge: Being an idiot. (OK, there were more specific charges, but let that suffice for now.)

My parents had to drive three hours to pick me up in Delaware, where they found me handcuffed to a jail cell wall and witnessed the fruits of my moral impoverishment displayed on the desk of the local constable.

Needless to say, they were pissed. I was grounded for the whole summer. But to keep me from settling into any kind of complacency at home, my dad assigned me a job in a research lab at the medical school he lorded over, ensuring that I got up at 6 a.m. every morning, packed a lunch and caught a bus downtown to the university and worked a full day at the behest of doctors who were engaged in what turned out to be groundbreaking biomedical hypertension and cardiovascular research.

I’m not suggesting that a lot of lives would not have been saved without me, but I was there for the development of a drug called Verapamil, the most popular and prevalent hypertension (high blood pressure) and migraine relief prescription medicine on the market today. It is listed among the World Health Organization’s list of Essential Medicines.

That summer, while working in animal experimentation laboratories (yes, vivisection), I applied catheters and experimental drugs to canines, took notes, collated data and translated the charts for the really smart guys to later study and deduce.

The result of that summer’s work was Verapamil. It has probably saved the life of someone in your family. If nothing else in my life, I did that.

It was a strange summer. During lunch breaks, me and two other young research assistants would wander the halls of the research labs and vacant medical school classrooms.

We wandered freely, randomly opening freezers that contained cadavers and severed organs – buckets of brains and hearts and livers donated for the med students’ use for experimentation and dissection. Everything – even my lunch – smelled like formaldehyde.

It was a dazzling, dizzying world I did not understand. Obviously, there was some serious shit going down here. They were making doctors. My dad was making doctors.

It was a telling, formative time. I was the last of the kids living at home – the youngest of the five – and one night at dinner before my senior year started, I told my dad that maybe I wanted to be a doctor.

My dad sat straight up and looked me in the eye and said: “Christopher, that’s wonderful. But it’s too late for that. Find another way.”

And so I did.

My dad passed in 2013. And as much as I disgraced him when I was a kid (that wasn’t the only entanglement with the law he had to get me out of), he died proud of the way I did find. He liked reading my stories, bragged to his colleagues about my accomplishments.

My dad taught me how to spell carburetor, not how to work on one, or even what one does. He simply encouraged me to keep writing, because that seemed to be the only thing I knew how to do.

Thus, you’ll not find my name among the “Best Doctors” of New Orleans in this issue of this magazine.

Just a story about a really good one who taught me how to be me.


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