Listen up: Studs was Right

The young doctor told me, “I remember the first time I killed somebody…” Another gleefully admitted that he had performed his own vasectomy at a time when that procedure was illegal in Wisconsin. The chairman of a surgery department tells me he’s unable to give blood because he passes out when pricked with needles. These conversations never would have happened had it not been for Studs Terkel. 

When I was 20 years old, I got my first job in public radio reading news and weather, and then turning on reel-to-reel tapes of the 1950s Studs Terkel’s Almanac. It was an old show even back then, but apparently still had immediacy in the early ’80s. I never really listened to it because I had to work while it was playing. But when I heard Studs passed away, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a significant impact he had had on my life.

The first oral history I ever read was Working, in which Studs let regular people discuss what their jobs were like. I was hooked immediately. I had never read anything like it before and was captivated by it. I loved hearing people express themselves verbally, while engaged in conversation. It was just so refreshing and without pretension. It was also really easy reading because you just get so caught up in it. You were eavesdropping on a fascinating discussion.

As my radio career advanced, I took over the medical beat at Wisconsin Public Radio and soon realized physicians were truly remarkable members of society who would make for excellent oral history subjects. They’re typically gifted communicators, incredibly brainy, and they have the most intriguing experiences.

I sat on the oral history idea for about 15 years before finally getting off the dime in 2003. Using Working as my model, I set out to find out what makes physicians tick. Unlike Studs, who focused on the ordinary person, I went after the extraordinary doctor who most people just didn’t know about. I knew about them because of my journalism work and because I later became a staffer at the Wisconsin Medical Society, where I spent almost a decade getting to know many more physicians even better.
Once I embarked on this odyssey, I spent every early morning for three and a half years transcribing and editing some of the most incredible conversations—56 hours in all—representing more than 900 years of medical experience. Studs was right. Give people a chance to speak and you’ll be amazed at what they’ll tell you. This was especially true with physicians.
The gift of Studs Terkel is the lesson we ignore all too often in our fast paced lives. It’s the importance of listening. Pure and simple. Everybody has a story and each of us can learn something from it.
How can you not admire the honesty of a physician who admits she fell short as a young doctor, unnecessarily hastening a terminally ill patient’s death? She now uses the experience to make sure the residents she trains never make the same mistake.
Lessons abound when we listen. And thank goodness Studs Terkel was around to teach me that.

Stephen J. Busalacchi is a medical journalist and author of White Coat Wisdom: Extraordinary doctors talk about what they do, how they got there, and why medicine is so much more than a job. © 2008