An Open Letter to Our Pediatrician
Dear Doctor L:
The girls have their yearly well exam in about another week. They have seen you multiple times every, single year since the day they were born. I’ve thanked you in person, but this letter is years overdue. All you know about me is that I keep appointments, I take flu shots and vaccines seriously and I’m on the overly cautious side of the parenting spectrum. I don’t think I’ve ever even told you that I write books, which means you probably don’t know that writing is my way of expressing deep emotion. You probably don’t know that writing is the way I say “thank you” and “I’m sorry” and “I love you” and “I’m quite mad at you at the moment” and a whole host of other sentiments: it is the way I heal and it is the way I most effectively communicate. If someone really wants to know what I think or feel, she should read my writings. Perhaps that is why, even though I’ve already expressed my gratitude to you in person, I feel compelled to write this letter. I’ve every intention of giving it to you at the well exam but I’m also making it open on this blog because, quite frankly, Dr. L, I just really like you and I want others to understand the importance of finding and keeping an absolutely exceptional pediatrician—and of nurturing that relationship. I want people to understand how positive of an impact you have made on the girls’ entire lives—not just medically but in their education and in their playtime. See, I don’t remember getting any shots. I don’t remember seeing a single pediatrician in my entire lifetime. I know I must have, because my mother has the paper that shows my vaccines were current, but we did not keep well exams; we went to the E.R. if we were sick. The problem with this is that it led to my being fearful and wary of doctors in general. But the girls are not afraid of you—-or of any doctor for that matter, not even their dentist. Indeed, you’re pretty much a member of our family. And not only a member, but a cherished one at that.
The problem is always the same: where to start.
When I realized I was pregnant with Breathe, I knew that I wanted to do things differently than the way I had experienced them growing up. I wanted doctors to be an integral part of their lives. I wanted them to trust the same pediatrician for the entire childhoods. I wanted this for a reason. In the back of my mind, I thought to myself, “If something happens to her and she, for whatever reason, does not feel she can come to me, I want her to be able to trust her doctor with it.” My past, of which you know nothing, influenced my decisions as a parent even before she was born. Fortunately for me, the computer has always been my friend. So I started looking up pediatricians. I called several and spoke with their individual nurses. I spoke with P at your office. She told me that you were quite busy and that she thought the world of you. I circled your name, uncertain of how I felt about the adjective “busy” to describe a pediatrician. On the one hand, it was reassuring because it meant that a lot of parents trusted you with their children. On the other hand, what if you were so busy you weren’t able to devote real time to us during our visits? I called a few other pediatricians and spoke with their nurses. In the end, though, gut instinct led me back to your name and the discussion I’d had with P. I looked you up, read your impressive credentials. I visited the office, the one down by the mall. And, in the end, I decided that you would be my daughter’s pediatrician. I decided to follow my instincts.
Months passed and finally the big day day. Breathe was born. My mom was in the operating room with me and I overheard Dr. Moran tell a nurse to call a different pediatrician—he did not know that I had already picked you. I panicked and told my mom to tell him no, I already had a pediatrician picked out. He seemed impressed and agreed to call you instead. You came the next morning and met us. You sat in the rocking chair and assured me that Breathe looked perfectly healthy; you had already been to the nursery to see her. And then you left. You came back every, single morning until we were discharged. And I was confident I’d made the right decision. Confident but, even still, I had no idea of how much you would come to mean to us before the first year was out. Seven months passed rather uneventfully; Breathe was an all-around normal and healthy baby girl as long as you don’t count the thrush infection she had twice. Then, in November, she came down with a terrible cold. Something was very wrong—I could not get her fever to go away. So I called the after-hours number at the clinic. You were unfortunately not on call but Dr. G was and offered to meet us at the clinic to take a look at Breathe. I drove her down, he took a look at her, prescribed her some medicine and told me she was ultimately going to be fine. He sent us home. The next morning, I got a call from your office saying that you would like to have a follow-up check with Breathe; you would like to see her. I thought you were just being you–concerned and cautious. Your patient had had to come to the clinic after hours, she wasn’t even a year old, and you were just being concerned. I thought about how wonderfully kind that was.
At the visit, though, you mentioned how you would like a CAT scan of Breathe’s head. You told me that it “looked” a little abnormal. Terror reigning in my heart, I agreed and made an appointment with the surgeon you recommended. He wanted surgery immediately. Scared, I called your office back and asked you to give me the name of another surgeon, explaining that while Dr. K was kind and nice, I wanted a “second opinion” before I agreed to put my almost eight-month old baby through a surgery on her skull. You sent back the message through P, “Please tell Ms. Johnson that I am the second opinion.” It made me smile and filled me with the reassurance I needed; I had known you for almost eight months and trusted you; I’d only just met Dr. K and knew very little about him. But if you said she needed surgery, I would trust you. The day of the surgery came. I would not leave the waiting room, not even to get something to eat, because Dr. K might call the waiting room phone with an update and I was terrified of missing it. It was a very frightening ordeal. About mid-way through the surgery, you walked into the waiting room, and my heart collapsed.
You said, “I thought I might find you here.” You sat and talked with me for a minute, and I learned that it was your day off. Even so, you’d come to the hospital because you knew Breathe was in the middle of surgery; Breathe was just your patient. Seeing you buoyed my spirits, Dr. L, and made me feel reassured that everything was going to be okay. When you left, I was still scared and worried about my little girl, but I was also moved and very touched by your thoughtfulness and kindness. But it didn’t stop there. The next day, Breathe was in the ICU. You showed up bright and early in the morning to check on her and to say hi. And the next day, too. And the day after that. I started to look forward to your early morning visits. You have no idea how much they meant to me but I’d like to try and explain a little. See, while I was still pregnant with her, which was a mere eight months prior to her surgery, I had told my mother about how my father had raped and hurt me from the age of 5 to the age of 16. She’d immediately divorced him and I had made the difficult decision to tell my extended family the truth. Upon doing so, I lost all on both sides, with the single exception of one aunt and uncle. Another of my uncles happened to work at Vanderbilt at the time; he’d come to see Breathe while she was in the ICU, but had been so cold and distant that, as soon as he’d walked out, I swore I would not let him back in. I felt blamed by everyone except my mother and sister. These people were my family. They had known me as a little girl. They had watched me grow up. And yet, they wanted nothing to do with me now because I wouldn’t “be quiet” anymore. I had morphed, in their eyes, from a “good girl” that I had been to someone who just wanted to create discord and problems. I had support from my mom and sister but otherwise, I felt very alone. And my little girl was lying in an ICU, swollen to the point of unrecognizable. And no one seemed to understand or even care. But you came to the hospital every, single day to say hi and to check on her. You came even on your day off. You came even though you did not have to come. You came and your visits made me feel as though you cared about her; she wasn’t just a name on a chart. She was a baby. And she was sick. And you were her doctor. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing you did for her, and for me, and I won’t forget it.
After the surgery, things returned to normal for awhile. I became pregnant with another baby and you welcomed Alight as your newest patient.
Then, when Breathe was about three or four, she started saying her bottom hurt a lot. She had really bad trouble with asthma, allergies and constipation. But what I kept hearing her say was that her bottom hurt. It was like those words were on a broken track in my head, and they just kept going around and around and around. I couldn’t let it go. So, we scheduled a visit with you to discuss the constipation issues. And I was unable to just sit by without saying anything anymore. So I asked you, in broken sentences and gestures, if everything “looked” okay on her bottom. When you understood what I was really asking, surprise came into your face and you said, “Is there any reason to believe she’s been hurt like that?” Sighing, I shook my head, my face flushing. “No.” Sighing, I then said, “I don’t guess I’ve told you about my childhood but… I was …. I was… hurt…” You tipped your head and said, “Hurt as in….” I nodded, gesturing, my eyes nervously darting to Breathe; I did not want her to overhear a word I would later have to explain. “Wow,” you said when you finally understood. You stood without speaking for a minute, then reached over and got me a tissue for the tears I’d been unable to stop. “Anyway,” I said nervously, “I just… when she started complaining about her bottom hurting, it just, I just ….” And you scowled, shaking your head, said, “No” and then reassured me that that was something you consciously looked for and that no, Breathe looked just fine. Then you said, “I never would have guessed,” and continued to just stand there. At first, I was really embarrassed, to tell you the truth, and ashamed. Then, out of the blue, you leaned over and hugged me. My level of trust and admiration for you shot through the roof. I wasn’t your patient; I was just the paranoid mother of your patient, but you treated me with respect and with care and, all at once, my feelings of embarrassment faded.
After that session, things moved along pretty well. Until your office made the difficult decision to stop accepting our insurance. You sent out letters, saying that you were very sorry to lose patients but that you could recommend other good pediatricians who could take over the care of our children. My response was automatic: I called your office and asked if I could just pay out of pocket. You replied, “I’m flattered but no because if she ever needed a referral, it could become an issue.” So I decided to change insurance companies in order to keep you as their pediatrician. At our next visit, I told you that. And then I said, “Unfortunately, however, open enrollment doesn’t begin for another five months; so we might have to push back their next well exams.” I was worried about this because I knew that if they got sick or if Breathe needed help with her asthma or constipation issues, we would have to rely on the emergency room until the new insurance could kick in. But, in the long run, it was worth it to still stay with you and your office. That’s when you looked at me and said, “You know, sometimes there are just families that we as doctors just really like a lot. And your family is one of those for me. So, until the new insurance kicks in, I will see your girls for free. If they need anything, call me.”
I had no idea what to say to that. I had no idea how to respond to such open generosity and kindness. I thanked you, with tears hiding in my eyes. I still am unsure of how to express how grateful to you I was for that—and still am today. It told me that my daughters really mattered, that their health was important and that they weren’t just numbers. And the kindness came at a particularly difficult and challenging time in my life.
These are some of the bigger things you have done for my daughters. But they are not the only things you have done. When I told you that one of their favorite games was to play doctor, you excused yourself from the room and came back with one of your old coats. It has your name embroidered on the pocket. You gave it to my daughters because, you said, “you have to have a doctor’s coat to play that game.” And when Breathe went through a phase where she thought doctors could not be girls, that only boys could be physicians, you sat down in front of her, put your hands on her knees and said, “Breathe, as you get older, people are going to try and tell you that girls can’t do math or science. Those people are lying to you. My boss is a woman doctor.” You pulled out your prescription pad and circled the names of all the girl doctors in your practice, then gave it to Breathe. “All of those names are girl doctors. And actually they are very, very good doctors. Did you know that there are more girl pediatricians than there are boy pediatricians?” Then you added, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t become whatever you want to become.” You took the concerns of a six year old seriously. And you used your positive as a trusted authority figure to tell her that she absolutely can be a scientist, a doctor, an astronaut or anything else she can dream of. You helped me redefine what “success” meant for her. My point is that you have been there, for the last nearly ten years, for my daughters. When the girls have brought you pictures or cookies, you’ve always gone and hung them up in your office right away. You made a big deal out of the cookies they brought you; and showed them off to the nurses. When Breathe came to your office with a very bad asthma attack, you gave us a nebulizer to take home until she felt better and stronger; for free. Your entire office has been extraordinary but you have cemented a place of your own in our family and in my mother’s heart.
I want you to know how much I appreciate you. I want you to know I do not take anything you’ve ever done for my daughters for granted. The girls and I, we pray for you, your wife and three boys regularly. And I feel safer knowing that their health and well-being is being monitored by you. Thank you for being the wonderful, kind-hearted, generous and rare doctor, mentor and friend that you’ve been to us over these last ten years. I do write books; a few of them have even been published. The books have a great deal of personal history in them and they are difficult to read. But I’m bringing you one because I have an intense need to try and give back something for all the things you’ve done for my daughters. The greatest doctors are those care about the entire child. Thank you for caring about the entire well-being of both my daughters. The smartest doctors are those who aren’t afraid of admitting when they don’t know the answer to something but instead find the answer; thank you for pulling out medical books in front of us to look something up; thank you for asking your partners for their opinions when you weren’t sure of something; thank you for being completely transparent and honest. The greatest doctors are those who listen, both to the child and to the parent. Thank you for asking the girls if they have any questions at the end of our visits; thank you for always taking my concerns seriously. The greatest doctors are those who promote compassion not in theory but in practice; thank you for the hugs and the hospital visits and the kind words and the expertise when we needed it. The most valuable doctors are those who are reliable and dependable; thank you for always being there. Thank you for always seeing that the girls’ thick blue folder files represent years of medical information for little girls, not just names on charts. The greatest doctors are those that can earn the trust and respect of both the parent and the child; thank you for safeguarding my trust and for inspiring my girls to trust you, as well. I feel reassured knowing that the next eleven years—until Alight turns 18–will be overlooked and protected the entirety of your practice and, especially, by you. Our family has been blessed by your intelligence, compassion and dedication; my girls look up to and admire you while my heart fills with gratitude for the support, encouragement and expertise you continue to provide.