I am a physician, a gastroenterologist. What I do is take care of the patients who are suffering from Gastrointestinal or digestive problems. Someone might come to be for reflux problems, someone for ulcer pain, and someone for diarrhea or constipation. Or someone might come to me just because they are perfectly healthy and need a screening for colon cancer or prevention of colon cancer.
But my story began much earlier, beyond the shores of the Atlantic or the Pacific. You see I was born in Bangladesh, well the then East Pakistan in a town nestled by the remote shores of the Bay of Bengal. Both of my parents were teachers, supporting a family of nine children with their meager salary. It is their sacrifice and inspiration that made me into what I am today.
I always wanted to be an architect! After the college exam, I traveled across the country and visited colleges and universities and spent time with relatives in capital Dhaka and other places. Soon after this trip I was ready to enroll in the professional school. One sweltering night we gathered for our supper, which was around nine or ten at night since back in the old country we are used to taking evening snack with English tea and biscuits, or cookies in American terminology. For our supper we used to squat on the kitchen floor, in a six by ten feet space; all of us used to huddle next to each other with our bottom on a six inch wooden tool locally called as “piri” , our both knees straight upright with our stomach squeezed. In addition to her regular job as a teacher and hundreds of chores, my mother used to cook fresh on earthen stove burning firewood that we used to collect from the jungles. She would serve us while keeping the items warm with the glowing fire, she would never eat until we are done. She had no options either, this was the 1970s in the old country, we had no refrigerator, meals had to be cooked for every meal and finished shortly before it goes bad. As I was slurping the rice and curry from the plate this night and so as everyone else, my mother asked, “So son, you have visited the universities and colleges, what have you decided?”
“Apply in School of Architecture, mother” seemingly confident and eager I was. The overcrowded kitchen with nine siblings, a father and a mother, all of them with a plate of food in front of the glowing inferno of the burning firewood went silent; all I could hear was slurping of the curry and cracking and hissing of the firewood burning in the stove as the last bit of wood oil tries to escape from the end of the charred wood. My father’s voice this time triumphed over the burning wood, “Son, we want you to be a doctor”. And then another brief silence to be only broken by arrhythmic cracking of the firewood, and this time I gathered all my inner logic and rebutted, “But my older sister is in med school, she is going to be a doctor”. My sister is our oldest sibling and by this time she was in the first year of medical school. Without taking out much time this time my mother forwarded, “Son, your sister is her own, she will be married off and make her home with her in laws, you are for us!” Her statement although I did not fully agree with or comprehend totally was reflective of deep thinking and cultural norm of Bangladesh that girls will be serving their husbands and I as the oldest son I had my own responsibility towards my family; it was my job to lift up rest of the siblings. This is how, societies in scarcity work, parents invest while they can in the first few children, and these older children lift rest of the family. This is why a son is so important in a developing country. The kitchen fell silent again, I did not agree neither did I protest, but, I must have been convinced, because the next thing I discovered in months to come was that I had enrolled in the medical school.
In the medical school, I was not a happy camper; I was a frustrated student, for two reasons: I had like to be an architect first and secondly, I had always dreamed of being in America and part of this great nation since my 6th grade. Just about that time all my relatives and friends who were well to do got admitted in America and I was left behind knowing all well that I am from a lower middle class family and to be enrolled in an American school was beyond my parent’s means. This was further escalated by the grueling basic science syllabus of first two years of med school. The very first day, we were locked in the Anatomy Dissection Room with the formalin preserved cadavers, the rancid smell was unbearable let alone overcoming the shock of seeing and cutting into a dead body lying on the table right before us. The other subjects like Biochemistry were equally boring if not tormenting. In those days, they did not allow med students to start working in the clinic with real human beings for first years.
In spite of all of these, I could pass and got promoted in the Third Year when I could go to the “Ward” in our British system of education, interacting with real patients. And in no time, I had a new birth of my soul knowing for the first time that every human was a story, even every disease had a story of its own, in medicine we call it “Natural history of a disease”. My life changed overnight and I started working hard and feeling good about it. I always liked story, story is primal, story is our essence. Liking story, is liking humanity. Story is human, only human, purely human. This is why I feel so accomplished to be a doctor, I am so satisfied to be a doctor, specifically a Gastroenterologist because my job is storytelling and storylistening. I always wanted to be an architect, an architect of mortar and bricks, but today as a gastrointestinal specialist, I make my journey with the endoscopes in the deepest caverns of human body, discovering the most beautiful and the most complex architectures of human body and as a GI doctor, I have to practice archeology at the same time to diagnose and treat. I shed lights in the sacred and secret areas of human bodies which are never lighted by nature, I see in myself, instead of being an architect in traditional sense I became an architect of human gastrointestinal tract!
Today, my parents long gone, I realize how their wisdom and experience had helped me. As a result, when I see and treat a patient, I come from a deep sense of gratitude and respect, respect for the wisdom and advice that I had received, grateful for the blessings that I had enjoyed, and the sacrifice that my parents had done for me. I like Malcolm Gladwell, and like him I believe, life is a relay race. Someone had to pass on the baton to me; someone had to urge me to run with this golden baton in my hand. In the sensational age of news media and 24 hour cable news, I always hear about the self-made persons, but I know that I am not one of them: I am the product of my upbringing, my surrounding, the support and patronization, the care I had received. This makes me very grateful and humble and my approach to my profession and patients is the same. I know how tenuous human life is. I know one supper gathering in a six by ten feet kitchen in one sweltering night of 1978 in a remote restive corner of the world in the shores of Bay of Bengal had changed my life. This is my story!
Because this is who I am, I resent the fact that we are losing the art of talking, touching and feeling our patients. We are depending too much on technology, software and hardware. It is distracting us. Our job is to speak with our patients; our job is storytelling and storylistening. We can diagnose and treat over ninety percent of the diseases by this only. I heard a business guy speaking about essence and form. Our form is the prescription, a drug. But essence is always heart to heart, eye to eye, a touch, a feel, an exchange of our positive energy. This is why we are treating diseases and patients more than ever before, but we are failing in healing. We Americans are the most treated but the most unhealed people in the world, not because we have less, but precisely because we have too much to treat with, too much technology to investigate with.
With this thinking of mine and with this being my own background, I have made a sea change in my practice. I randomly speak with my patients and started taking their story. For example, I had a young man who had been treated for Hepatitis C and with the miracle of modern medicine, he has been cured, but he was never feeling any better than the temporary elation he got when his virus was undetectable in blood test. I sat down and spoke with him. He has been a very unfortunate man, who did not get the care that I got from my parents. His world was a selfish world, fraught with lack of care and exploitation. As a child he experienced things that even adults cannot handle, he naturally became a walking zombie. The burdens of mind and lack of sharing and storytelling was tearing him apart. After our mutual storytelling and listening, he felt better almost immediately; I saw a profound change in his face right in front of my eyes. For the first time I felt he was healing: healing by storytelling.
I had another elderly man, who had killed his abusive father at age 14. He had been gainfully employed and walking around with this burden for last 7 decades, his spirit is shadowed by a deep melancholy. After our mutual storytelling and listening, we discovered that his gastrointestinal symptoms were the result of his experience and untold story; he had no one to share his story and pain. Again after he had unloaded and shared his story he broke down in crying like a baby, but he felt better immediately with visible changes of his facial expression, his first sign of healing.
So far, after over 50 storytelling and story listening from random people, I have reached one conclusion: we are not humans, we are all super-humans. All of us have a story, a skeleton in the closet. The pain of not sharing, the pain of not unloading is more than the pain of the event itself and it accentuates over the months and years. This is why, I have started this blog: SuperHumansInMyOffice. After I had done my thorough research, after I had put myself in the shoes of these people and after I got to know the adversity they had faced, I believe that ordinary people are extra-ordinary, not humans but Super Humans. But good news: storytelling and story listening is a great tool of reducing our own suffering and in starting our own healing. So in my blog site I will share stories of ordinary people of our country, our community. You will get to know from the stories how extra-ordinary everyone is and how healing these stories are to my patients and to everyone of you as well! So stay tuned………
Nizam M. Meah, MD
109 Parking Way Street
Lake Jackson, TX 77578
Phone: 979 292 0033