Let me open up my world to you and share with you the stories that helped me throughout my medical and personal journey, and how I got lost in books.
I was 13 and woke up late one Sunday morning. Groggily, I walked up to my father, sitting in his chair with a magnifying glass in his hand and reading a book from his library. His library was in no way close to the grandeur of the Morgan Library (a small walk from Grand Central Station in NYC) yet, it had the warmth in it that might be compared to the attic library of Theodore Roosevelt Sr. My father was the Vice Principal of a prestigious college, which entailed a lot of administrative work, but still, I saw him religiously sitting in his library, reading voraciously. I used to find it odd: why would a person accomplished in his career and with so much work still want to find time to read books? I was 13 and naïve.
Fast forward a decade and a half—I am walking quickly to be on time for my first call of my internal medicine residency. Despite remembering the stories from House of God, I was not prepared for the coming roller coaster ride. During my intern year, I realized it is easy to classify days into “short call” or “long call” and the rest of the days as “post call” or “pre call.” The conversations with my peers started revolving around what had happened in the hospital, and that just engulfed our time together; it was a great catharsis and the stress-relief default. However, when things got busier, this default was not ubiquitously rewarding, and the stress of residency life eventually reached me. At that time, I reflected on what was the modus operandi of my mentors in such situations, and I found that it was the same antidote prescribed by my father: expand thy imagination by reading books. This concept is not arcane, but practicing it is easier said than done. When will I find the time?
Well…I found time at random places: The New York City Subway ride became my best solitude spot where I would listen to Beethoven, Mozart, or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan while reading. The push or pull in the subway, the number of stops or duration of the ride didn’t matter if I had a book in my hand. Every single ride became Nirvana, where I found myself lost in the world created by Hesse: I finished most of his books during that time. My appetite with every page continued to grow. During my rotation in ICU, chanting carpe diem, I walked every day into the unit like a figurative pugilist raring to go at his opponent. However, by the end of the week, my energy had diminished. I went back to the wisdom of the sages: Grab a cup of coffee and read.
Gradually, my drive to read transitioned to a strong longing to listen to stories. I would sit and listen to all the characters chatting in the words of Ernest Hemingway, Dorris Lessing, Khalil Gibran, Paulo Coelho, Elif Shafak, Sibte-Hassan, and so many more authors. Whether reading or listening, the exposure to stories resulted in more joyous conversations with my patients, their families, and with my peers –and I had my own stories to tell now.
Finally, when I secured my place in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine as a Fellow, I realized more the necessity of diving into the world of words. Burnout is prevalent in Medicine, and at all levels of practice, it is easy to get overly attached to your work, resulting in increased burnout; this is especially true for those practicing in the ICU. My salient escape strategy is found in a coffee shop listening to Bach and reading through my bucket list of books. No matter how the day or week has gone, this is my solace. Years after observing my father in his library, now I understand why indulging in reading was the leitmotif in the opus of his life.
And now, as a physician, it is mine.
I am greatly indebted to my mentor, Kelly Cawcutt, MD, for reviewing and editing this article.