Braille Monitor January 2008
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by Mark Stracks
From the Editor: On Thursday afternoon, July 5, NFB convention attendees spent some time learning about overcoming obstacles in the medical profession. First John Paré described the life of Dr. Jacob Bolotin, the first person blind from birth to become a physician, when on May 20, 1912, he was graduated from medical school in Chicago. (A review of his biography, The Blind Doctor, appears elsewhere in this issue.) Then psychiatrist and NFB of Pennsylvania leader Mark Stracks reflected on his successful effort to become a physician in the last quarter of the twentieth century. This is what he said:
Good afternoon. It is both a pleasure and an honor to be here today and stand before a group of people that over the past fifteen years I have come to know as friends and family. A few weeks ago, when I asked Dr. Maurer what he would like me to speak about, he said, “Tell them what it’s like to be a doctor. Tell them how you did it.” Talking with Dr. Maurer that day made me stop to think about the practice of medicine from a more philosophical perspective than I usually take. In the day-to-day practice of medicine, physicians are often focused on the schedule, the problem, the paperwork, and the oversight responsibilities with which we are charged. Often in the day-to-day doing of the thing, we lose sight of the prize and the fire that drives us toward and keeps us focused upon the accomplishment that we seek. It was therefore quite refreshing to think about the practice of medicine in the context to which Dr. Maurer referred, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share some thoughts about this with you today.
There is something wonderful about being in a position to serve others. There is something exceptionally satisfying in the knowledge that one can develop a set of skills that can be put to use in the aiding and comforting of those who are ill or in distress. The opportunities to heal or, more aptly, to help others along the paths of their own healing evoke the combination of awe and humility in the practitioner, and there exists a powerful yet humbling understanding within all physicians that they are the bearers of an ongoing tradition that has spanned millennia.
It’s not your basic nine-to-five job. It is not a path to be taken lightly, but it is a path that has led many a practitioner to amazing experiences. I have always admired the character Sherlock Holmes, brought to life in the pages of literature by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I have always been fascinated by Holmes’s ability to observe and deduce from observation, to bring together seemingly disparate clues and weave them into a tapestry of understanding. He is the quintessential detective. This is what I am called upon to do on a daily basis in the practice of psychiatry.
Psychiatry is concerned with the workings of the mind and the understanding of those things which drive us to be who we are and to do what we do. In training to be a psychiatrist, we are taught to try to understand those patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that might color our work with clients. We are taught to train with a detective lens upon ourselves. It is in this context in recent years that I have started to wonder how I have managed therefore to accomplish some of the things that I have.
We come then to the second part of my charge today, to tell you how I came to be a physician. I truly fit that old cliché that goes, “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor.” I believe that I first understood this when I was about eight years old. During that time I recall observing my father in his practice of orthodontics and the family friends with whom we spent time, many of whom were dentists and physicians. They all seemed to be very special people with wonderful gifts and abilities. They did good and exciting things. They were people who served others and gained satisfaction from their service. Mind you, my eight-year-old analysis was not that complex on a conscious level. I was drawn to what I saw was appealing even though I didn’t completely understand it. And I took inspiration from those I respected. It was an emotional response, not a logical one. This is something that we all must understand about ourselves. Whatever pretense we make of being logical is in fact a learned skill. We are emotional beings, and to the extent that we allow ourselves an undisciplined manner, we will act in emotional ways. I ask you to bear this in mind today because I believe it has a great deal to do with how I was able to become a doctor and, more important, what makes it possible or impossible for an individual to achieve any particular goal to which he or she aspires.
During the time when I began thinking about becoming a doctor, something else was happening in my life. I was beginning to understand the way in which being blind made me different from other people, especially kids my own age. They felt I was different. They certainly acted as if I was different, and they certainly treated me as if I was different. None of them could explain it logically. None of them could cite a text or doctrine, chapter and verse, which laid a reasonable foundation for their claim. They saw, they felt, and they acted; and it hurt. By the time I was twelve, it was clear to me something had changed. Either I was going to pursue my life in the manner I thought I should, which meant that I would work single-mindedly to become a doctor, or something bad was going to happen. I didn’t have the sophistication as a twelve-year-old to know what that bad thing was, but I think it scared me enough that I made a decision to move forward with my dreams despite the ridicule of my peers.
Deciding to be a doctor then necessitated a course of action, and many subsequent decisions had to be made. In my mind at the time, it meant inventing the wheel. I was not aware of any other blind doctors. I was not aware of the National Federation of the Blind, so I proceeded on my own. I certainly had the support of my family and friends, but I often felt alone in my quest. What I have just said may seem complicated, and again what I am relating to you today is the understanding of a seasoned practitioner of medicine and a hardened advocate for independence as a blind person. I didn’t understand what I was experiencing those many years ago; and, even as I pursued my career goals through secondary school, college, medical school, graduate school, residency training, and practice, I didn’t totally understand how it all came together.
The answer comes down to the consideration of a single question: how do we make a decision? How do we decide to succeed? The answer lies in the understanding that our decision-making is heavily influenced by what we feel, often more than what we think. This is not something people like to think about. We like to believe that we make the decision we want to make, and that is that. We should also consider that the atmosphere in which blind people make decisions, the atmosphere projected by family and friends and society in general, is often dominated by fear, fear born largely of ignorance shielded in the cloak of love and caring, but fear none the less.
Fear is one of the primary emotions that we experience, and the only antidotes to fear are knowledge and experience. Neither of these, unfortunately, are we born with, but we can acquire them. And one of the best ways to do so is through the National Federation of the Blind. I can remember being made to feel afraid of being blind when I was a child. It was more the fear of being different and recognizable as different than anything else. Over time this fear turned to anger, and the anger was intense enough to compel me to make a decision that I had no way of knowing would work out for me. I had to believe so strongly and so completely in what I was attempting to do that nothing else mattered. As time went on, the conscious decision to make being a doctor happen seemed to recede into the background. The process continued. It seemed to take on a life of its own.
Even though I couldn’t remember making that initial decision, it had been made, and I did not make another decision that contradicted it. Today I am a doctor. It is that same sense and intensity of belief that brings us together today at this national convention. We are stronger together. We foster belief better together. We fight misperception more effectively together. And together we replace fear with understanding and experience. We do collectively as an organization what a major theory of the mind attempts in practice. We break through fear. We bring forth enlightenment. We are, my friends, at a crossroad within ourselves every day. It is a crossroad between who we are and who we want to be. It is a crossroad that is as easy to navigate as the taking of a single step or as treacherous and impassable as the greatest chasm that exists, if we choose to make it so. This is the divide between what we believe we can be and what we believe that we are. It is the chasm between the potential limitlessness of experience that faith allows us and the finite underachievement to which fear grounds us. It is the measure of the difficulty of making one decision and then another and then another to bridge the gap or be stranded forever on the edge of who or what we could have been.
Amelia Earhart once said, “The most difficult thing to do is to make a decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do.” Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” And the actor Michael J. Fox, when speaking about his experience in battling Parkinson’s disease said the following, “Nobody would choose to have a disease visited upon them. Still, Parkinson’s forced me to make a fundamental life decision. Adopt a siege mentality or embark upon a life journey.” For me becoming and being a doctor has been a wonderful journey. Becoming a doctor was not an accident. For each of us, whatever our dreams or desires, everything is possible if we only dare to make it a reality.
“To be or not to be,” Shakespeare once wrote. “That is the question.” And it continues to be the question placed in front of us this very day. May we as individuals and as an organized movement of the independent blind continue to answer this question with a resounding “We shall be. “we must be.” And no person and no idea will ever stand in our way. [applause]
I would like to thank Dr. Maurer for the opportunity to speak today, and I wish all of us complete success in our pursuits. Thank you.