Why did you write White Coat Wisdom?
Early in my career as a public radio reporter, I was assigned the medical beat. Frequently, I ended up calling physicians for comment about various health care issues and almost always came away impressed with them. Time after time, each person was not just articulate, but he or she was able to explain complicated scientific matters in a way a layperson could understand. I was struck by that.
And soon after I had begun doing these interviews, I thought to myself, I bet there’s a good story behind each of these people. How did they get like this? Who influenced them along the way? What have they learned?
Then, I started getting into Studs Terkel books like The Good War and Working and I decided an oral history format would be perfect for doctors. Point a microphone toward them and let them speak.
So how long before you actually started to do that?
It took about 15 years! I always thought it was a great idea, but I never acted on it until 2004. There are just so many things going on in life you really have to be dedicated to seeing something like this through and I never quite found the time to devote to this.
I finally got going after a friend encouraged me at a party. He was just taken with this oral history of physicians idea and was enthusiastic enough about it that I took the first steps to making it happen just weeks later.
Any surprises after having done these interviews with these physicians, most of whom you know very well?
The fact that three themes seemed to come up during each discussion: education, serendipity and spirituality. Doctors are life-long learners so it’s no surprise that they value education, but I was shocked with how many had a teacher in the family or were former teachers themselves.
The serendipity has to do with how many of them settled on their specialty. Few of them actually set out to be a surgeon or pediatrician—that just sort of happened to them because of random events in life.
And the spirituality part was the most surprising of all for me. Here you have men and women of science and they kept getting back to all these things beyond their control. “That wasn’t me,” a surgeon recounted after a patient’s particularly astounding recovery.
As talented and confident as these people are, they’re smart enough to recognize the limitations inherent in medicine and respect the possibility that a higher power may be involved.
How did you select which doctors to feature?
Having been both a medical reporter and later, PR Director for the Wisconsin Medical Society, I got to know a lot of physicians—dozens and dozens of them. To do a book like this, you need a certain trust level built in because these people, in a sense, are entrusting their life story with you. Suffice it to say, I know a lot more great doctors than I could possibly have included in one book.
But what I decided to do was make a list of all the interesting, eloquent physicians I knew and then chart what issues were most important to them. Then I just started contacting them to see who would be interested in participating, and almost everybody was agreeable, if not enthusiastic about it.
Did the chapters turn out as you hoped?
Amazingly, yes! Every single interview contained great material, though I never could have predicted everything they told me. That’s the beauty of an oral history. Engage people in an extended conversation about their life and you’ll be amazed at what they’ll tell you. The difficult part was editing the conversations down to a manageable amount of reading material.
What did you learn from this experience?
More than I can express in just a few words. But the overriding theme of this book is that true fulfillment in life comes after a lot of hard work, but also in doing something you're passionate about. For doctors, it really is about helping others. They’re very empathetic and truly thrive on this one-on-one relationship with patients. I’ve always enjoyed my work over the years in journalism, but I found myself a bit jealous of these doctors. Their satisfaction level with the medical profession was absolutely off the charts. It isn’t about the prestige, the money or the power. It is all about healing and their commitment to their patients.