More Love, Please
When I was twenty-seven, living in New York City, and working in film, I was stricken one day by severe abdominal pain that eventually led me to pass out. My boyfriend called 911. The cops came to check things out and called an ambulance which transported me, sirens blaring, on one of the most exciting rides of my life, through the streets of New York to Mother Cabrini Hospital where they knew a bed would be available. It was early evening when I arrived on a dark cold day in early January. I lay on a gurney for hours as one doctor after another came in to examine me, palpating my abdomen and drawing blood. It was clear that no one knew what was wrong. My abdomen grew distended and hot. For long stretches I waited alone.
Around midnight an Indian doctor entered the room. She introduced herself as Dr. Sadarangani, and she exuded such majesty and gentleness I knew instantly that I was in good hands. She regarded me as if we were friends even as she inserted a long needle into my belly to check for the presence of blood. When she found blood she told me she would be operating. I was stunned. I had never had anything wrong with me. Until that day I had never fainted. I had never broken a bone, or had stitches. I’d never had an operation, or spent any time in the hospital. I was a healthy young person. And I had no health insurance. “Let’s wait until morning,” I said. “So I can talk to my parents.” She placed her hand on my arm. “We can’t wait,” she said quietly.
Dr. Sadarangani saved my life. Without her intervention I would have bled to death. She found a liter of blood in my abdomen from a ruptured ovarian pregnancy that had happened despite the IUD I had in place. She repaired the damage, and I spent a week in the hospital, a week that happened to coincide with my birthday. And as it turned out Dr. Sadarangani and I shared the same birthday. Throughout that week I looked forward to her visits during which she told me a bit about herself. She was married to Dr. Roy, the chief of surgery. They had a son, and she had a gynecological practice not far from where I lived. I told her about the films I’d been making. She told me my ruptured ovarian pregnancy was very rare and the first she had ever operated on. She had delicate hands, long thin fingers. Her laugh was musical. We were interested in each other, and I was in her thrall. She subsequently became my gynecologist. She was the first doctor I’d had that I truly loved. And not only because she’d saved my life, but because she was fully present during our meetings, and she saw me as a full person.
Since Dr. Sadarangani, there have been three other doctors I’ve loved. The next one was a fertility doctor in LA whose bedside manner was unparalleled. Everyone loved Dr. Marrs. He looked you straight in the eye. He laughed. He spoke with a slight southern accent. For the babies that came from his practice he had tiny T-shirts that read: Babies from Marrs. Yes, he was in possession of a hefty ego, but it was subsumed beneath his passion for his work and his compassion for his patients. We all wanted to be his most special patient, and we all felt that we were. He knew and remembered the details of our lives; he made us feel seen and even loved. And we loved him back. When, after many ZIFT implants and another ectopic pregnancy, he told me he thought it would be a waste of money to continue with interventions, I was disappointed, but so appreciative of his honesty — and I was sorry I would not be seeing him any longer. He was a special man.
The other two doctors I love are still in my life. During the year before my ALS diagnosis when I was losing my voice, I ricocheted from one doctor to another without feeling any ongoing support or any interest from anyone in understanding what was wrong. But then a lovely soul took an interest. My dentist. The stellar Dr. Laleh Razaee. She asked me about my symptoms, gave me advice about talking to my neurologist, did her own research about ALS once I was diagnosed, and has used that to make recommendations about certain mouth difficulties I’ve had. But most of all she has seen me as a full person and established a relationship with me. She has read my books. We love each other, and I feel hugely cared for by her. I used to dread dental visits, but now I look forward to them.
The fourth doctor is the OHSU neurologist, Dr. Nizar Chahin, who diagnosed my ALS. He is a colorful character. Syrian-born, he is sensitive to the cold and wears his puffy winter jacket in the examination rooms during all seasons. The picture of concentration while working, he stared at my thighs for a full five minutes when diagnosing me, looking for the telltale fasciculations of ALS. After he told me the grim news and I was crying, he put his arm around me. “Mean people never get ALS,” he said, “only nice people.” He is unafraid of showing his emotions, his fear, his joy. We hug after each of our visits, and he tells me he loves me.
These four doctors have allowed a relationship to develop. They pause for long enough to see and appreciate each patient, and in that interaction they reveal something of themselves. In such a back-and-forth relationship a kind of healing love has flourished.
I can’t help noting that three of these four doctors are foreign-born. One in India; one in Iran; one in Syria. Is it possible that the different norms of those cultures has created such empathetic doctors? Or have I simply been lucky to encounter some remarkable individuals? I don’t know.
I do know that, while I was not healed of my infertility, and will not be healed of my ALS, I have been given the gift of caring relationships that have healed my soul. I am deeply grateful for these loving doctors and wish the qualities they embody weren’t so scarce.
Happy Holidays to everyone! And I will be taking next week off, so see you in the new year!