Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reflections from a Friday at Grady: This bitter earth

"This bitter earth
What fruit it bears
What good is love

That no one shares?

And if my life is like the dust

That hides the glow of a rose

What good am I
Heaven only knows

This bitter earth

Can be so cold

Today you're young

Too soon you're old

But while a voice

Within me cries

I'm sure someone

May answer my call

And this
bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all."

Jazz legend Dinah Washington singing "This Bitter Earth"


Okay, so I guess I would be remiss if I didn't comment on something that happened to me at Grady. . .and sort of beyond Grady. . .last Friday. I was giving the lecture for Primary Care Grand Rounds (at Grady) and I. . .well. . .I started crying during my presentation. Yeah, you read that right. I started crying during my Grand Rounds lecture. Snot and all, and not a tissue within 50 feet of the podium. "Boo hoo crying" as my best friend Lisa D. calls it, and nope, no typo-- I was the speaker. Wow. Doesn't sound too grand, does it?

Listen--if you have read any part of this blog, you probably know that I have a lot of emotions when it comes to crack cocaine and the patients we care for at Grady who are affected by it. So it should come as no surprise to you that I decided to take a detour from our regular super-scientific talks and try something different, but related to crack cocaine. I guess my goal was to "humanize" our patients who use crack, and to paint them not as "crackheads" or these erratically-walking-down-the-street/washing-your-windshield/asking-you-for-money/weak-minded/fill-in-the-blank addicts. . .but as real people.

Of course, I did the regular background stuff of reading papers and doing literature searches. But the coolest part was the three weeks I spent walking around the hospital interviewing patients who used crack cocaine. Oh man. . . . .it was amazing the things people told me. And every person I talked to was so gracious. . .so open. I always thought I knew a bunch about street drugs and the dismal factors that lead to their use- but I did not know as much as I thought. I was excited about telling their stories.

Last Sunday, I was working on my slides and even though it was going well, I found myself hitting a wall. I decided to take a break and head to my vice of choice - Target. (Some have a drink to unwind, I go to Target.) While en route, my dad called me on my cell. (Not unusual, since I pretty much talk to my parents daily and subject them to a blow by blow of everything I do professionally.) Dad and I were chatting about my presentation, and I was doing my best to give him my vision of the whole thing. I hoped he'd give me something to help me with the roadblock I was hitting.

"You should talk to your Uncle Woody, " he suggested. "He will probably tell you a lot of useful stuff for your talk."

Uncle Woody is my dad's younger brother. One of the eleven children born to my grandmother and grandfather, one of seven sons, and one of the two children who graduated from a four year university.
Hmmmmm. I suppose I'd sort of known that my Uncle Woody was "on something", and I'd heard that he'd been incarcerated and hard on his luck over the years. I even knew that he'd stolen money from Dad at some point, too, yet even that I hadn't thought about much since Dad had forgiven him for it.

"Uncle Woody used crack?" I asked. The more I thought about it, the more I knew the answer. While he wasn't the only Uncle that had substance abuse issues, he was the only one who was always accused of having "sticky fingers" which is, as comedian Jamie Foxx says, "crack-ish."

"Oh, yeah, he definitely used crack," Dad said. I liked the gentle and understanding tone to his voice. It certainly did not sound the voice of a man who'd had his identity stolen, his credit annihilated, and even a criminal record created in his name all at the hands of the younger brother of whom he spoke.
"He's really open about it. I will call him and see if he'll talk to you about it. I'm sure he will."

After we hung up, I pulled into a parking space and just sat there for a moment thinking. I reflected upon my childhood memories of my Uncle Woody and smiled. He was so charming . . .and cool--I'm talking cool as a fan. . . . .and super good looking. One summer we were visiting Birmingham, Alabama when I was around ten years old. We stayed at his lovely home with his even lovelier wife, and I recall not wanting to leave. I remember the wall to wall carpet in his new home, the late model Cadillac he was driving, and even the way he smelled. He smelled like fancy cologne and success. His wife smelled even better, and in their bathroom they had a double vanity (which at age ten, I had never seen before.) Woody's wife had perfume with an atomizer sitting on the bathroom counter, and sprayed two sprays each behind my ten year old ears. I was elated. My Uncle Woody was the number one salesman at one of the largest Ford dealerships in Alabama, and it showed--his life was fabulous, and so was he.

Then, at some point, something went terribly wrong. We lived all the way in California, so my perception was distorted by the miles. I recall these vague reports of him. . . . "Woody lost his job" or "Woody's not with his wife anymore" or later on, "Woody will steal from you 'cause he's 'on something'." That went on for years. . .through my high school years, through college and beyond. The uber-successful uncle who had graduated from my college alma mater and who always smelled so good had become this blurry figure that I couldn't get my mind around. I began to wonder if my early memories of him were just a figment of my prepubescent imagination.

My cell phone vibrated in my pocket and startled me.
"Take this number down," Dad said firmly, "Woody is waiting for your call."
Robotically, I wrote the number down on a loose sheet of paper lying on the seat in my car. A few moments after I entered Target, I took a deep breath and called my uncle.

As soon as I heard his voice, there was something different about it. Always the life of the party, I was accustomed to his quick wit and tendency to entertain any person with whom he spoke. Today, it was appropriately serious. No lighthearted one-liners, no silent laugh track in the back ground or even the slightest hint of "shucking" or "jiving." It was a side of him that was as nebulous and foreign to me as the descriptions I'd heard of him over the years.

Two sentences into him telling me his story, I felt a pang in my heart that told me, Go sit down. Take this all in. This is real talk right here. He doesn't have to do this for you. Give him that respect. (Fortunately, most Target stores are now equipped with their very own Starbucks bistros.) I asked him to hold his thoughts for just a moment as I ordered a latte, sat down with a pen in hand and that same loose sheet of paper. I didn't want to miss a thing.

We launched into what turned out to be a pivotal discussion. Uncle Woody took me on his twenty plus year personal journey through the hell of crack cocaine (and alcohol) addiction. He told me how he was introduced to crack, how it made him feel, and when he knew he was "hooked." He described the deplorable living conditions he experienced at his worst, his deceitful means of acquiring money for drugs, and the self hatred that was perpetuated as a result. Eloquently, he shared of his meteoric rise to success as a young man followed by his plummet to rock bottom--all at the hands of drugs.

We talked about his life now, and his ongoing struggle with substance abuse. There was a childlike quality to it all. . . . almost like an attestation of some horrible abuse at the hands of a caregiver; filled with internal angst about whether or not it was all their own fault. He graciously (and courageously) agreed to let me tell his story, use his name, and even his picture.
"Anything I can do to help you teach people, Kimberly," my Uncle Woody said earnestly.

The entire time, I was somewhere between intrigue and tears. Like my dad and all of his side of the family, Uncle Woody is such a good story teller that the pendulum swung more towards the "intrigue" side. I hung onto his every word, inserting my gasps and "oh my goodness"es along the way. In the end, I guess I never really processed my feelings about it all. . . . . .

That is, until a little over three quarters into my lecture last Friday. I had incorporated all that Uncle Woody had shared with me into my slides, including a few of his notable quotes that I'd scribbled down feverishly in the Target Starbucks that day. The whole thing seemed to be going well. I told my patients' stories, and saved one of the very best for last-- Uncle Woody.

(Granddaddy, Grandmommy, Auntie Bunny, Mommy, Daddy, Uncle Woody, and Mudear
Mommy and Daddy's wedding day, July 23, 1966)

There I was, in my element. Talking and teaching. . . .totally my thing. Then I advanced the slide and there it was. It was a picture that included my Uncle Woody from July of 1966 (above). An image I'd seen a thousand times before, and a thousand more since I'd been preparing for this talk. It was from Mom and Dad's wedding day, and there stood 18 year old Woody in the wedding party. Mom with her angelic 19 year old face, Dad standing at military attention--with Uncle Woody to his immediate left. Next to Woody was my paternal grandmother, affectionately know to us as "Mudear." She looked so regal--standing beside her two college boys. Dad, the first to go to college, and then, Woody, who had graduated high school second in his class and who'd scored a full scholarship to play baseball at Tuskegee. I saw my maternal grandparents, Mom's older sister, Bunny. . . but at that moment, when it was projected on that screen, I saw that picture completely differently.

That was the Uncle Woody of my ten year old memories. If I closed my eyes, I could even smell his fancy cologne and hear his confident laugh. That laugh sounded so watered down and defeated in our recent conversation. I thought about how much courage it took for him to tell me his story especially since I know he knew how much my siblings and I once looked up to him.

The magnitude of it all smacked me across the face and punched me in the chest. What a parent wishes and prays for their child! Oh, how proud Mudear must have been during that time. . . .and how devastated she must have been to see her manchild's demise! Completely unexpectedly, I was immediately moved to tears at the very sight of the image--in front of the entire auditorium of attendees. I tried to speak but nothing came out. I cannot believe I am doing this during my Grand Rounds lecture. I cannot believe this. Get it together, Manning.

You could hear a pin drop. I waited a moment and did my best to continue. Okay, Kimberly. Please don't go into the "ugly cry" like when Halle won that Oscar. That's when it crosses from touching to weird. Don't go there. Come on, girlfriend, pull it together. For a few seconds I felt embarrassed, but something about the audience comforted me; their understanding eyes, their patient silence.

On Friday, the pendulum swiftly swung the other way with nearly one hundred onlookers. I processed my feelings about my uncle, my Grady patients, and my feelings about crack right then and there--whether I was ready or not. And in a strange way, it felt good to release those emotions (even if it was in front of five trillion people that I have to see on Monday.)

Dear Uncle Woody,

Thank you for not being too proud or afraid to tell me your story. Thanks to your honesty, a lot of people learned a lot that day, and I learned something about myself. I learned that I love you--and you know what? Not as much has changed in thirty years as I once believed.

Now, I respect you for completely different reasons.

With love from your niece,


Now that I think about it. . . . .thanks to my patients at Grady--and my Uncle Woody--my Grand Rounds talk was kind of therapeutic. . . .and pretty grand after all.


  1. I wish I had been there.

    Keep it human,

  2. I really did write a comment before. You know that I am your number one fan and I only wish that you will start writing that book that resides within you. Or should I say those books that reside within you... You know that this was, is and will continue to be very emotional to me.. Keep writing Dr. KD


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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