My Story

Years ago, I had a life-altering experience that would profoundly affect my approach to health care.

Though it took place before I became a doctor — before I was even accepted to medical school — this experience has helped me to embrace the mind-body-spirit connection that informs my practice every day.

UNEXPECTED TURBULENCE

In 1993, as a college junior, I boarded a plane for Maryland, where I was scheduled for an early-admission interview at the esteemed Johns Hopkins Medical School. I was seated on the plane next to a woman with a very productive cough. Though she was a pleasant person, I wasn’t so pleased to inhale the air around her as she continually coughed.

I made it to Maryland in good spirits, and the interview went exceptionally well. But soon after my return to New York, I started to experience flu-like symptoms: fever, cramps and a pounding headache. Despite warm May weather, I found myself drinking hot tea and wrapping myself in a blanket. Within a few days I was bed-ridden, holed up in my dorm room with excruciating body aches. I managed to struggle through a physics exam before finally making a visit to the campus infirmary.

A TURN FOR THE WORSE

The infirmary staff diagnosed me with a stomach virus, providing a bottle of penicillin and instructions to drink plenty of fluids. I stocked up on beverages and returned to my dorm room in hopes of a speedy recovery. But things only got worse. My fever and headache intensified, and I couldn’t keep any of the fluids down. Too weak to use the phone, I spent hours lying half-conscious in my bed, delirious with fever and haunted by disturbing dreams of my own death.

Eventually one of my fraternity brothers came pounding on my door looking for me. I was nearly comatose and barely able to whisper, let alone cry out for help. Rightfully concerned, they broke into the room and realized I needed urgent medical attention. I remember being carried out of the dorm and into a van, falling in and out of consciousness as nurses and doctors worked to keep me awake. Somehow, amid all this pain and chaos, my mind kept running back to my Johns Hopkins interview and my desperate desire to become a doctor myself.

CRITICAL CARE

What campus staff had diagnosed as a simple stomach virus turned out to be a grave infection. I was placed in an isolation chamber with tubes running in and out of every orifice of my body. I remember seeing doctors in masks: “You are very sick,” one said. And outside the windows of the hospital room I could see my mother’s face. She had flown in from Brooklyn, New York. I knew things were serious. After several days in the ICU and several more as a hospital patient, I was finally discharged. Partial deafness and occasional seizures served as poignant reminders of my ordeal.

Just before my release from the hospital, the doctor who had admitted me came by to visit. He’d heard that I was an aspiring medical student and that I’d been determined to get well in hopes of attending Johns Hopkins. He handed me a medical textbook and instructed me to look up bacterial meningitis. Upon reading the facts, I realized that I was truly lucky to be alive.

The doctor said he had a kind of test question for me. I listened intently as he asked, “What’s two plus two?” I briefly paused before answering: “Four.” He looked at me and smiled as he said, “You’re going to be a great doctor.”

SEEING THE CONNECTION

My near-death ordeal taught me how the mind, body, and spirit function together in keeping us alive. It was my drive to become a doctor, my desire to learn how to take care of the mind, body, and spirit, that I believe kept me alive in that hospital room. As a medical student, I went on to learn a lot about how these elements also function separately, but my intellectual and spiritual drive to become a health care provider have always remained close at hand.

John Steinbeck once wrote: “A sad soul can kill you quicker than a germ.” Identifying the goals, beliefs, and human connections that enrich our souls can be just as essential to healthy living as any medical treatment.