In primo piano
From the patients’ words to Bach’s notes
Employment and vocational training
List your reasons for choosing your career…
I started out wanting to be a veterinarian. Along the way it morphed into wanting to be a doctor, but I had no idea what doctors really did. Everyone in my family is a teacher. Initially, I thought I’d be a scientist (I did a joint MD-PhD program) but during my first year of internship I fell in love with my patients’ stories and never looked back.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I love chatting with patients and learning about their fascinating lives. Everyone has an original story. But the most rewarding part is when they walk out feeling better than when they came it. Having the chance to move the needle in someone’s life—even just a little bit—well, it doesn’t get better than that.
And the most boring?
Can you describe your workplace? Is there something hanging on the walls of your studio?
I keep stacks of books and our literary journal, Bellevue Literary Review, in my office so that I can give out to my patients if they want something to read. The walls are covered with my children’s artwork. Each time there’s a hospital inspection, I’m told that I’m going to get a citation for having “unauthorized papers” on my walls. I take them down and stash them inside the examination table for the week, and after the inspectors leave I tape them right back up. I haven’t gotten fired. Yet….
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Challenges and stakes
What would be the first thing you would try to do as US Secretary of Health and Human Services?
Push for universal healthcare. It’s ridiculous that we in the US treat healthcare as a market commodity and not a universal right for everyone.
And as a Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser?
Untangle the undue influence of pharmaceutical and medical device companies. I’d double the budgets of NIH, and CDC.
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Reading and writing
How and where do you find the time to write?
On Fridays I don’t have patients, so that’s when I write. Plus the weekends.
Offline or online?
I drag my laptop everywhere!
The most “dangerous” typo that has gotten out of hand?
I have to speak Spanish with about half of my patients, so I always have to ask their age:
“¿Cuantos años tienes?” One day a Spanish teacher reminded me not to ever make the mistake of asking “¿Cuantos anos tienes?” Before that, I never made the mistake. Once she told me, I constantly mix it up, leading to many embarrassing moments.
How did you write your first book?
I trained during the AIDS epidemic, which was exhausting in so many ways. After that, I took off 18 months to travel. I supported myself by doing short stints as a temporary doctor, but spent most of my time in Central and South America. It was during that trip that I began writing down the stories of my patients during medical training. Those stories eventually became my first book, “Singular Intimacies: Becoming a Doctor at Bellevue.”
What non-medical book is on your nightstand?
“Martha Graham: the Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training.” (It was a gift from my husband. I’d studied at the Martha Graham School during my medical training.)
Who is your favorite writer?
Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. I feel as though magical realism is just what we need in our world today.
Which book would you take to a desert island?
I’d bring the poem “Gaudeamus Igitur” by John Stone.
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Memories, passions, and…
What is one thing that fascinates you most?
What makes people tick. I can listen to endless stories about people’s lives.
Do you prefer to be at the table or to stand over the stoves?
At the table (so that I can read my newspaper or the “New Yorker” magazine while I eat.
Veg or meat eater?
Vegetarian—but still eat fish.
Wine or beer?
Red wine, but I don’t mind beer with spicy food.
What do you love most about United States? And what less?
I love the rich tapestry that immigration has created. My patients come from every country. My kids hear every language at their schools. My father was an immigrant; my grandfather was an immigrant. America’s strength is it diversity.
What I like least is the provincialism and narrow-mindedness that is found in the “America First” ideology. It curdles my stomach to hear it.
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How do you wind down at the end of the working day?
Well, with a family, there’s no “winding down” after work. However, once we’ve gotten through dinner and homework and all the other crises of the day, I try to make sure I have time for cello practice. It’s my hour to tune out the chaos and focus on something as ‘impractical’ as Bach.
Do you prefer to read online newspapers or print newspapers?
My morning ritual is my cup of coffee and my New York Times—the actual paper! I love spreading out the pages over the table and perching my breakfast on top. Nothing beats the aroma of coffee and newsprint.
Television is for watching…
Nothing! The average American watches 4 hours of TV daily. That’s a gift of 28 free hours I get every week for doing all the other stuff I love. (I read about television in the New Yorker, but I leave the actual watching to the rest of my family).
Who phones you most often?
I talk to my mother every morning on my walk to work. It’s our daily ritual—from the moment I leave my apartment, through the temperature checks in the lobby of the hospital, up the four flights of stairs (so I can skip going to the gym) until I click on my computer in my office. Then we say goodbye and I’m ready for the day!
The best time of the day: sunrise or sunset?
Sunrise. It feels so good to have all the possibilities of the day available.
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How do you prefer get around the city? Walk, bike, bus or car?
As true New Yorkers, we do not own a car. I walk to work, and we all use bikes as much as we can. Next best is subway. In a pinch—a cab.
The best holiday?
Thanksgiving. This is the one holiday in the U.S. that everyone can agree on. There’s no religious observance to wrestle with, there’s no gift-giving to stress anyone, there’s no agenda other than to get together with your family and eat a big meal together.
Which American city do you love most?
New York City. How could you even ask?
And Italian city?
Ah, that’s a tough one. On our way to Italy for our honeymoon, our passports and tickets were stolen, so our trip to Sicily was replaced by several days in Rome (awaiting new passports). But they say, “When in Rome…” so we did, and it turned out to be a highlight of our trip, including the best risotto I’ve ever tasted. We did make it to Taormina in the end, which was lovely. When we traveled with our kids, we had the most fun in Milan, but they also loved Lago di Garda and Monte Baldo.
But the honest answer is… any city! I’ll come back to Italy any chance I get.