As a medical doctor, I have peered into the lives of many patients who have unique experiences.
When I started practice 40 years ago, some of my patients had parents who lived during the Civil War; a few fought in the Spanish-American War, and more recently, at the Millennium, several of my centenarians could say they lived in three centuries!
One of my first patients in Santa Clarita was a gentleman who was taken to Auschwitz during WWII as a teenager … and escaped!
In his retired life, he lived in an assisted living facility, a building with senior apartments and a common cafeteria for eating and socializing.
I would visit him at his residence sometimes, with his daughter and granddaughter present. On his apartment wall were multiple awards given for community service in the Los Angeles area.
As with many older adults, he was reluctant to reveal much of his background, some of it out of modesty, but also because his background held dark secrets.
According to his daughter, he owned a successful business and donated to those in need, ensuring everyone was given a chance. For years, he contributed to social organizations, enhancing educational opportunities for youngsters.
When I asked about family history, he became mum, not revealing the dark side of his background. Later, his daughter told me the fear instilled in him during his Auschwitz imprisonment still lingered.
He explained to her that on the day of his arrest, he had already neatly packed a suitcase with his meager belongings.
She revealed the rest of his life after his escape; he would wear long-sleeved shirts to cover the tattooed prison number on his left arm to hide the reminder of his imprisonment. His fear through the years affected him immensely, so much so that many past details would not be shared with her.
How did he escape? She said he was part of a work camp and decided his fate was doomed to the gas chamber, so he knew he had to take a chance and flee.
This fear impacted his daughter as well, and to emancipate her emotions, she and her daughter visited Auschwitz. To their shock and surprise, at one of the exhibits on display was that suitcase he had neatly packed!
Even as his doctor, he never opened up to me about this past life. But I was able to ask about his philanthropy, and when I questioned what his motivation was, he looked at his granddaughter.
Sometimes in life, we have to take a chance, as my patient did, to flee. Fear can keep us from moving forward, but motivation for those we love can nudge us enough to enhance their dreams.
Learning about people who may carry historic experiences could help us in the future.
Peering into the lives of my patients has provided insight benefiting their care and making me a better doctor.
Gene Uzawa Dorio is an internal medicine physician who blogs at SCV Physician Report.