It’s been about 10 months since I left New York ; the city, the state, the place of my birth. And on the eve of celebrating the 1st birthday of my daughter back where it all started, I’m thinking about all the experiences here that made me who I am, When it comes to medicine, my career in primary care started on the New York City Subways and the J train.
One of the few largely above ground subways, The J train continues to click, clack, roll and tumble through a myriad of diverse neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. From 1992 to 1999 (high school and college) I made the daily sojourn into Manhattan, using the hour of time to catch up on sleep, spanish homework, chapters of Homer’s Odyssey or complete assignments for organic chemistry. What I enjoyed most of this experience was simply sitting back with my AIWA walkman (Discman later) and observing the faces of the crowd. In a city so large, the faces and the stories were rarely the same.
My trip started in a rapidly evolving middle class neighborhood in Queens. The area was in the midst of a “white flight” as caucasians slowly moved to parts further east as south asians and west indians moved in to begin their immigrant lives, struggling to fulfill their american dreams. As the train rolled west and into Brooklyn, tree lined streets gave way to boarded up apartment buildings, police sirens and general urban decay. This was East New York, a place defined by poverty, drugs and violence. The faces from here looked like any other, but they hid struggles unique to this neighborhood . Further west, the J train passed through Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods where the modern world clashed daily with religious and cultural traditions. And finally before crossing over to Manhattan, the train would pass through Williamsburg where the struggle to survive gentrification was only just beginning.
I no longer live in NY and ride the subways. But as a physician each day continues to feel like a subway rides except now I am the conductor that’s picking up patients, helping them get to their destination. And just like back in the day, I try to read their faces, understand their struggles by listening to their story. But as a primary care physician I recognize their struggle isn’t simply about what part of their body hurts or what disease currently plagues them. There struggles are a composite of their illness, their life stories, their backgrounds and the streets and people in their neighborhood that helped forge their identity. And healing isn’t simply about mending a broken bone, stitching up a wound or completing a course of antibiotics. Healing is about helping the patient cross the Williamsburg bridge, into Manhattan so that they can live to carry on for another day.