I once attended a business coaching workshop for health care professionals. For one of the exercises, we had to draw our “ideal patient.” The instructor told us to be as specific as we could. We were encouraged to set up a full name profile, age, gender, race, and health challenges. Some of us even wrote two-page background stories about how our ideal patients grew up and who they were dating. The exercise aims to help us find out who we have the most passion for serving, so we could build a practice we love.
I designed my first ideal patient, Bella Alberstein, named after former congresswoman Bella Abzug and my favorite singer Chava Alberstein. She would be 52 years old, with short brown curly hair and 25 hot flash episodes per day.
I seemed to have always bonded naturally with mid-age female patients. First, as a young OB/GYN intern trying to explain to them that sex could still be wonderful after a hysterectomy, then I built half of my practice treating menopausal symptoms after transitioning to practicing as an acupuncturist. Probably because I had been my mother’s caretaker emotionally since age 5, I understood them and felt close to them. “But why is she Jewish?” one of my colleagues ask. Everyone stared curiously at me, a Chinese woman who was born, raised, and medically educated in China. It often seems odd to many people, and amusing for some others, that I get excited about Rosh Hashanah, order matzo ball soup in restaurants, and spit out words like “shlep” and “plotz.” After I came to the U.S., half of the new friends I made were Jewish women. Not to mention two sage Jewish women came into my life right after I turned 30, becoming my mentors and surrogate mothers, filling up a role missing for many years in my life. However, it remained a mystery for me, too, that I have such love for the Jewish culture until I recently had a conversation with my friend Lisa who has a PhD in Jewish women studies.
I told her about how I always felt worried and even terrified about my mother’s outspokenness and confrontations towards both men and women, growing up in one of China’s most conservative cities where women were famous for their obedience and the city for its sexism. There were no women like her. Lisa gave me a sly grin, “It sounds like a Jewish woman raised you.” It was one of the moments that I felt my life suddenly made sense. I scanned through all the Jewish women I know and everything I like about them, and there she was, my mother. As a young woman landed in a foreign country by herself in her 20s, I longed for guidance and support, and somehow these Jewish women felt like home.
Does this mean I designed my clinic to treat my mother, too?
Unlike my ideal patient Bella Alberstein, my mother didn’t suffer much from hot flashes. She had a hysterectomy when she was 41 years old. After constantly feeling a lump in her abdomen for nearly a year, my mother went to the doctor and was told that her uterus was filled with something that looked like fibroids but could be malignant. Feared as a non-medical person that she might die during the surgery, she decided to tell me that she was going on a business trip for two days.
I was 15, riding in my mother’s business partner’s car after school a day after, shocked when he made a dramatic turn on the road and announced, “your mom is in the hospital.” I have only two more memories of this event. In one of them, I stood helplessly next to my mother, who looked pale and in pain on her hospital bed until her business partner showed me how to massage her arm, which was sore from all the IV drips she was getting. In another, she was arguing with my grandma after she came home from the hospital, and I had to bite my lips so I wouldn’t tell my grandma to be nice because my mother had just gone through surgery.
I believe this was one of the events that have shaped my career. I applied for rotations in the hospital where my mother went through her surgery and scrubbed in as many hysterectomies as I could. I volunteered in community services educating female workers from underdeveloped areas about birth control and the prevention of STDs. I give a 20 percent discount to single moms, and I served 90 percent of mid-age women in my daily practice. Interestingly, this number has dropped to 50 percent in the past year. Now I have more male patients of all ages and more women in their 20s and 30s.
When you are in a private practice of any kind, you really get to understand the law of attraction. More patients tend to show up with headaches on the days I suffer from my own headache; often, a patient would share their struggles with me similar to those I wrote in my journal the night before. In general, I attract workaholics and overachievers of all ages with health issues from lack of rest and play – the same issues I have worked with healers, coaches, and therapists of my own. After two years of journaling, Reiki, and talk therapy, I finally connected with my younger self and started to appreciate her. Immediately more women in their early twenties showed up at my office door. For the first time in my life, I found myself filled with compassion instead of resistance for their confusions and sorrows towards life and themselves. Patients are my mirrors. Day after day accompanying their recovery, I found myself hurting, learning, and transforming as a fellow patient.
Perhaps many of us went into the professions we chose to heal ourselves. P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, once revealed to a reporter of the magazine Parabola the origin of the magic character she created. It was a stormy night after her father’s death, and her mother had left the house attempting to go down a river. Travers, who was 10, curled up under a quilt with her two younger sisters in front of a fire. Out of desperation, she suddenly came up with a story about a magic white horse, carrying them over the darkness of terror. While the fantasy almost intoxicated the three little children, their mother came back, drenched in river water. Trauma eventually transcended into art years after, and a 10-year-old’s attempt of self-rescuing inspired the books later voted one of the most helpful to soothe children’s fear at night. Gloria Steinem, feminist journalist and social-political activist grew up with a mentally challenged mother who was once a reporter for a newspaper in the 1920s but quit after giving birth to her first child. In her memoir, she joked about being “codependent with the world.” It was the longing to live her mother’s unlived life, as many other women, including P. L. Travers, led her on a path to the liberation of all human beings.
Every professional I have done the exercise with admitted that their ideal patient was inspired by someone they were close to in their personal life. It was usually a family member, a best friend, or themselves. The ones who carry the most unbearable sufferings-the kind that reminds us of ourselves and our loved ones most likely would become our “ideal patients.” After all, our compassion for others’ aches comes from understanding our own pain. We heal to be healed. Healing’s mutualism continues to amaze me every day. It’s a gesture of kindness and love that elevates both the giver and the receiver.
May all be healed.
Tedi Zeng is an acupuncturist.
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