As a family physician on Chicago’s South Side, every day brings painful and beautiful stories, many variations on a theme–gun violence, senseless loss, deep heartbreak for loved ones, deep love for family, faith in God. Patients share how they cope with life constraints and limited opportunities with warmth, humor, anger, sadness and love.
I am going to try to intentionally unload the heavy stories of violence to lighten my soul. Writing of violence will be my new pro-life regimen to prevent burnout. To keep himself living life well, my grandfather would touch his toes ten times each morning until he died on his way to play golf at age 91. Telling ten stories each day may be a bit much–but ten minutes at the end of a clinic day to lay down the burden of witnessed violence sounds much more doable.
If this blog allows me to bleed stories out of my soul, that would make you, dear readers, my leeches. Leeches may be an outdated, outmoded, disproven all-purpose healing modality–but they are making a revival in wound care. Will you help me heal my wounds by bearing witness to my patients’ stories? Perhaps from shared understanding can come change. Change gives me hope.
This is the world we live in. A world with violence that some of us cannot escape (the hypertensive patient I saw last week who refuses to set foot outside his home to exercise–as he lives in hiding with his son who is “SOS”–shoot on sight, a marked man, as he tries to pull away from gang activity. But they can’t afford to move away, they have nowhere to go). The violence glances off others of us (the shooting shared today by the still-suffering mother who lost her son? One block from my clinic. At 3 in the afternoon. In the vestibule of a building I pass at lunchtime on my way to buy burritos. That shook my illusion of invulnerability). A world with violence that is so far removed from so many of our lives that we can ignore it completely.
Can you ignore violence completely?
“You won’t be shot,” a South Side high school student reassured me a few years ago in a frank conversation about gun violence. “You’re white. Your death would matter. The police would find who did it, so they won’t do it.”
Would your death matter? Does your life matter?
Can you breathe, freely?
When I share these stories of my patients, I either ask permission to share the particulars, or I change the patient details. My goal is to tell the essence of the story, and sometimes I do so by creating portraits of composite patients–mixing genders and ages and occupations and neighborhoods or races–so their neighbors, friends and family won’t be able to recognize the individual, but will be able to recognize the essence of shared experience. Sometimes the stories have links to news stories. Sometimes they tell real stories with real details, minus the links. Sometimes the identifying details are changed. I won’t necessarily tell you how the story is told. The patients will guide my approach.
As I write that, I am reminded that stories of pain are intertwined with positive emotions. Empathy. Gratitude. Love.