During elementary school, I saw my dad mostly on weekends, because he traveled for business during the week. Between watching soccer games and running errands, he never missed an opportunity to tune the radio to Car Talk. He is an engineer with a passion for cars, and Car Talk was his Holy Grail. He would guess what was wrong before the expert hosts spoke, and he was usually right. “Aha, I knew it was the transmission!” he would exclaim, hitting his hand against the wheel.
Initially, bored by monotone voices debating parts I couldn’t pronounce, I did not grasp the diagnostic talent involved. Lately, though, I see the similarities between Dad’s skill set and my work as a physician. I often feel that the body is just a machine, with synchronous circuits and pipes carrying breath or blood. In both fields, parts inevitably decay, and we try to diagnose without seeing inside. Our professions also have their own vocabularies. “We are just talking shop,” a physician might say when using medical jargon in front of a patient.
Our inside knowledge also means that my dad and I know what can go wrong. We cannot have a conversation without Dad eventually prodding me about my car’s fluid levels. Similarly, if he offhandedly mentions a symptom, I cannot help but try to draw him out. These exchanges have become our own shoptalk.
The other day I gave Dad a call. Toward the end of the conversation, he paused and said, “Talking with daughters about health is really hard.” Despite his vague language, I knew what was on his mind. He is a healthy 71-year-old, but after finishing hormone therapy for recurrent prostate cancer he has had terrible back pain.
When I first ventured into medicine, my identities as daughter and doctor felt separate; eventually, though, without my seeing the threshold, the lines blurred. After Dad was diagnosed, my professional knowledge would not let me return to the other side.
I told him I knew talking to me about his health was not easy, but that I was happy to help. We discussed the back pain; he didn’t know where to turn. Afterward, when I asked if he felt OK about our conversation, he said talking about his health wasn’t the hard part. Surprised, I asked what he meant. He replied, “I do not want you to feel you are my shepherd, or that you need to be. I do not want to burden you.”
All at once I knew the weight I felt when I worried about his well-being matched how strongly he felt about not wanting to be a weight. I realized that with mutual care and concern, there will inevitably be need, and with love there will also be pain. To be able to truly give, I have to appreciate that one day I will be in need myself. We are slowly learning this together.
I felt tears well and let the magnitude of his words settle. “So, how is your car doing?” he asked, gladly turning the tables. I had heard an odd whirring recently; what did he think it was? With more prodding, he zeroed in on the fan belt and recommended that I ask my mechanic some specific questions.
In both situations, we could have turned to others: family friends who are physicians, the staff at a nearby garage. Yet neither of us wants that when we are in need; we crave someone who knows us, we want someone we love to help. So there we were, trying to offer each other what little we could. I knew our comfort lies in secrets shared and knowledge traded — in the reciprocal roads of our shoptalk.
Alexis Drutchas is a family physician. This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com