I believe we choose our parents before we are born. I hit the jackpot.
I picked an unlikely pair — a radical feminist and a guy named Ted Krouse. Mom wasn’t home much (she was finishing up her psychiatry residency) so I became head of the household. Dad always kowtowed to the strongest woman in the room. I was two at the time. I never had a bed time or a bath time and I sent Dad out on midnight runs to 7-11 to get us Slurpees and chocolate bars for dinner. Since I rarely bathed, I ended up with dreadlocks. Dad turned my poor hygiene into a neighborhood contest. The kids on the block lined up in our living room. Dad gave $1 to anyone who could move a comb through my hair.
Ted was basically a single dad. Every so often he’d place an ad in the newspaper for a live-in nanny. A slew of women from all over town showed up at our doorstep to compete for the position. Dad lined them up across the piano bench and onto the couch. Then he’d point to me and my baby brother on the floor and ask, “Do you think you can handle them?” None lasted long. Some quit mid-shift, I think a few on their first day.
With unreliable child care, I’d accompany Dad to work. The morgue was like our secret clubhouse. Dad would open the stainless-steel doors to the cooler and say, “Good morning! Is anyone home?” He’d prop me up and introduce me to all his patients.
Then we’d head to the Camden methadone clinic. As clients came in, Dad introduced me “This is Pamela. She’s a doctor-in-training. Show her your track marks.” Then he’d tell them a secret: “Ya know, I got an addiction too.” Opening his drawer, he pulls out a bag of banana-flavored marshmallow candies. “I love Circus Peanuts, but I’ve had this unopened bag in my desk for two years. I don’t allow my addiction to control me.” I’ve never seen anyone eat these — except Dad. His secret to longevity: cigarettes, vodka, and Circus Peanuts. At noon, he gave lunch money to clients in need. He hands ten bucks to a transsexual woman and tells us to “go have fun.” So I spend the afternoon on a street corner with recovering heroin addicts, eating pizza, and learning Spanish slang from a sexy Puerto Rican woman with huge biceps.
At nightfall, we head to the jail, where we evaluate drunk drivers. While most kids are preparing milk and cookies for Santa, Dad and I spend Christmas Eve seeing 30 prisoners on night shift. We set up our cots in our own cinder-block room with Dr. Krouse displayed prominently on the door. I watch drunk black men staggering in and out of our bedroom all night long. Dad introduces me as a “doctor-in-training,” then tells the men, “Lean forward and breathe toward me.” He sniffs them for alcohol. Dad was the City of Philadelphia’s human breathalyzer. Ted’s nose saved lives and kept Philadelphia streets safe for over 20 years. My father had nearly 14,000 guys with DUIs breath and burp in his face — until they replaced him with a mechanical breathalyzer in the 80s.
We spent nights at the state psychiatric hospital hanging out with schizophrenics plus we were on call for the fire department. We’d end up at midnight apartment fires in crime-ridden neighborhoods. To keep us safe, Dad bundled us up and locked us in the car. I’d wake my brother, unlock the door, and drag his little body over firehoses until we were stopped at the police line. The magic words, “I’m Dr. Krouse’s daughter” and they’d let us wander off right toward the fire.
Dad, you shielded me from nothing. You exposed me to sexuality, racism, poverty and death — all before starting grade school. Thank you for your courage. You weaned me from the bottle and let me to drink from the cup of truth. You never censored me. And you never censored the world around me. I didn’t understand the value of your gifts until I was older.
On birthdays and holidays, when most girls get chocolates or flowers from their fathers, you sent me a Valentine’s Day box of Godiva gallstones (the most beautiful gemstones that you retrieved from real gallbladders just for me). You sent me gift boxes with heart valves, kidney stones, and prosthetic testicles — along with my birthday cards.
You called yourself my first boyfriend and told me our solid relationship would pave the way for a lifetime of loving relationships with men. Actually Dad, you made it kinda difficult for me to find a date. Strong, eccentric, fearless females who prefer spending Saturday nights in the morgue aren’t in high demand. While my Wellesley classmates were seeking husbands at Harvard and M.I.T. frat parties, I took the night shift at the homeless shelter where people mistook me for a light-skinned black woman.
You treated all people with honor and respect whether they were black, white, Puerto Rican, whether they were on heroin, alcohol, or homeless, or dead. Ever nonjudgmental, with a heart of compassion. Your benevolent service inspires me every day to serve people with an open heart. I still do house calls just like you and — like you I’ve never turned anyone away for lack of money.
I want you to know that the people you exposed me to were more than your patients to me. They became family. You made the entire world my family. And you made me a family physician to the world.
You took me to work and now I’m taking you with me. You are scattered in stories throughout my books, on national TV interviews, on websites, and blogs — and in all my talks to medical students and physicians. For 46 years I tagged along with you. Tag along with me for the next 46. Our adventures have just begun. Rest up. You’re coming with me when I present my work on physician suicide to 5,000 physicians in Washington, DC. Dad, I know you really, really wanted me to be surgeon general, but our professional influence has surpassed the confines of the office of surgeon general. I hope you understand. I don’t need medals or fancy titles. Medicine is an apprenticeship profession. And I learned from the best man out there.
You. The one-and-only Dr. Theodore Krouse — you are so eccentric. Ya know, you’re the reason I’ve never owned a TV. Nothing on television can ever touch my real-life adventures with you.
So I want to thank you. For everything. For never hiding the truth in happily-ever-after children’s stories. For never sheltering me in a hollow make-believe world. For introducing me on day one as a doctor-in-training. As healers, you and I are fueled by tragedy and we are forever intertwined in our pursuit of tikkun olam — a more perfect world.
In the end, we are all just spiritual beings having a brief and finite human experience. Thank you for choosing to share your human experience with me. It’s been an absolute blast. But above all — more than anything else — I need to thank you for never taming my hair or my spirit.
Bless you. Be free …
Pamela Wible pioneered the community-designed ideal medical clinic and blogs at Ideal Medical Care. She is the author of Pet Goats and Pap Smears. Watch her TEDx talk, How to Get Naked with Your Doctor.