Guest post by Andrew Bomback
My mentor gave a speech at his retirement party, somewhat unfocused due to the alcohol that was served, but the one part I distinctly remember was when he talked about service. “I was a community doctor for 15 years before I took an academic job, and I worked my tail off, and that was entirely to serve my patients. I was in a service industry. Sometimes I felt like Lucille Ball with the chocolates on the conveyor belt, barely able to keep up with it, but I knew I was doing it to serve people. When you go into academics, you stop providing service. It’s the housestaff – the residents and the fellows – who are doing the service, who are helping the sick, and as an attending I always felt like my job was to support those young doctors, light fires under them, and make sure that they realized what incredible service they were doing.”
Once or twice a year, my father would invite some of his residents over for dinner. They arrived late, after my brothers and I had eaten our own dinner. We stayed downstairs, watching television in the den. At some point, my father would ask us to come upstairs and meet the residents. These young doctors would be sitting on our couch, drinking wine, eating cheese and crackers. The men wore shirts and ties, the women wore dresses and high heels. My parents, dressed just as nice, eating and drinking the same food, looked strange sitting next to them, like guests in our own home. The residents would always ask us the same questions – How old are you? What grade are you in? Which one of you is going to be a doctor? I can’t remember how I or any of my brothers answered that last question. The night felt like a ceremony. We probably played along and said we all wanted to be doctors. My mom didn’t serve dinner until after we’d gone to bed.
My wife and I invite our residents over for dinner, but we ask them to arrive early, as close to 5 PM as they can make it, so they can eat dinner with our children. We tell them to dress casually. In nice weather, we barbecue and eat outside. When it’s cold, my wife makes a Mexican-style buffet in our kitchen – tostada shells, refried beans, pickled onions, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, crumbled queso blanco, fresh-from-the-food-processor salsa, and what the residents invariably call the best guacamole they’ve ever had. Like my father with his residents, my wife and I are also putting on a show, but we’re trying to present a realistic picture of the life we live, the life that will be theirs in a few years. We serve beer and pomegranate martinis. In return, the residents ask my daughter, Juno, if she wants to be a doctor.
“Esta noche, Mommy va a cocinar la cena para las personas con quien trabaja,” I told Juno on a Sunday morning. My wife had invited over some of her residents for dinner, and I was trying to enlist Juno’s help in cleaning up our living room.
“The enfermos are coming over?” she asked.
Had I spoken in English, or if I knew the Spanish word for residents, or if I had gone with my first inclination to call the residents “los estudiantes medicos,” I could have prevented her confusion. “No, mija,” I said, “solamente los doctores que estan los estudiantes de Mommy.”
She stared at me for a moment before asking, “Why didn’t you invite the enfermos?”
I needed to switch to English. “Because this dinner is a way for Mommy and Daddy to celebrate all the hard work that these doctors do every day. We’re throwing a party for them.” I started to gather up some of her toys, hoping she’d just follow my lead and not ask any further questions.
“But what about the enfermos?” she asked, standing in place. “Do they have parties?”
I stopped cleaning up, moved over to Juno, and got down on my knees to address her eye-to-eye. “They do,” I said. “They celebrate when Mommy and these other doctors make them better so they can go home to be with their families.” This explanation satisfied her enough to help me clean up her toys.
Andrew Bomback, MD, is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, USA. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, New Delta Review, Essay Daily, and Hobart. His new book, Doctor, is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series.