Friday, October 14, 2011

People like us.

Stopping to smell these is never a waste of time.

There's a little cafe in the medical school that sells coffee, tea and quick bites to eat.  At one point it was on the first floor, right as you entered the building, and eventually they shifted it to a shmancier location upstairs.  Seeing as I LOVE  coffee, it should come as no surprise that, no matter where it happens to be located, I frequent the spot quite often.

Every time I go there, the same woman is working behind the counter. Every single time. And now that I've been coming in there for quite some time, our exchange is always easy and familiar.

"Hey, there Doc!"

"Hey, pretty lady! What's going on with you?"

"Not too much.  How them boys o' yours doin'?"

"Same ol' same--crazy as ever!  All three of 'em! How about your daughter?"

"Girrrl. She's good.  Think she's grown but what else is new!"

And then we laugh and chat some more while I add creamer and sweetener. .  . . and while I linger over stirring it all in.  I've always liked people. All kinds. But especially her kind. The kind with ready smiles and brains that remember the fine details of who you are without much thinking. A lot like this man who works in one of my favorite restaurants, Saba in the Emory Village, who knows what I like to eat. He always remembers and says, "Your favorite salad with no bleu cheese, right?"  And I smile and nod yes. Even when I don't want that because him recalling that, out of allll those people that enter and exit all week, makes me feel special.

Anyways.  Today I'm reflecting on those kinds of little subtleties in interactions between people. Those fleeting exchanges that seem so tiny individually but, when stacked all together over time, are massively important.  Like to that guy in Saba, he's just being pleasant when he says that to me. I doubt that it's some master plan to make me feel special. But that's exactly how it makes me feel. I always ask about his beard because two years back he told me that he grows it starting in September so that he can be Santa Claus in the Emory Village.  He seems to appreciate me remembering that.

I won't spend much time talking about how little digs or casual mean-ness stacks up, too.  Unkind words, eye-rolling and exasperated sighs.  Not such a big deal when isolated, yes. But they can add up, too. And then there's indifference. Sure--calling someone an idiot or a jerk is so intentional that no one mistakes it for anything other than nasty.  (Even if it's said in jest or followed by "bless her heart.") But what about ignoring people? Completely walking by them or paying the same person every day at the coffee stand or giving orders to the same nurse and never taking a pause to find out who they are?  That coalesces into something big, too.  At least that's what I think.


Well, let me get back to the woman in the medical school cafe. So the other day, I was up there getting some coffee and there she was in her standard spot.  This time, there was  a maintenance employee (that I'd not met previously) there chatting with her. As I walked up, they both greeted me and I returned the favor. We shared a few pleasantries and I gestured for them to carry on their conversation, apologizing for interrupting. Instead, they brought me into their discussion.

"Hey, doc," she said to me, "Did you make it to Dr. Hurst' funeral? We were just talking about it and wondered how it was."

I paused for a moment and looked at them both.  The man--a tall and muscular middle aged gent with a youngish face and a complexion almost identical to that of a pecan. The woman--a thirty-something year-old heavyset lady whose bright smile sharply contrasted the deep espresso of her skin.  Both speaking a language I know well; that kind of dialect that's hard to explain but that is so familiar to me, a fellow African-American person, that it feels like house shoes.

"No, Ms. Stephanie. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it," I finally replied.

The man shook his head. "I didn't even realize it was last weekend. Man! I sho' woulda been up in there. That was my man, Dr. Hurst."

He was your man? Dr. Hurst?

"I know," she chimed in.  "He was a good, good man.  I wish I had known the day and stuff 'cause I woulda went, too."

And I just stood there astounded at all of this. Let me explain why:

Dr. J. Willis Hurst was literally a living legend at Emory for many, many years.  He came to Emory in 1950 and was probably one of the most recognizable names in Cardiology in the world. In his career, Dr. Hurst was Chairman of the Department of Medicine, President of the American Heart Association, the author of publications too numerous to count including the most widely used textbook of Cardiology (The Heart), was the able physician that cared for U.S. presidents, and was the "gold standard" for medical teaching for many.  Quite frankly, even though he happened to be at our institution, he was the Sir William Osler of his time.

In other words--Dr. Hurst was kind of a big deal.  Not even kind of. He was a big deal.

(When your book gets translated to another language, you automatically are a big deal.)

It was easy to see what his death meant to all of us medical educators. He was the one who'd laid our blueprint, the man who, through his example, showed us "what to do."  I met Dr. Hurst several times, and although I didn't get to work with him one-on-one much, I always admired him for the aforementioned accomplishments. But this? Hearing this exchange between these two individuals told me that there were things about him I didn't know.  The kinds of things I actually respect the most.

"How did you know Dr. Hurst?" I queried them both.

He spoke first. "Well, me, I been workin' here for almost 18 years.  Dr. Hurst saw me smoking one time and he always used to talk to me about my heart and smoking.  Always.  He would stop me and chat with me, but you know, not in that mean way.  And then when I quit, he always still talked to me about how good it was that I did. I liked that. He was a good dude."

"I liked that he always remembered my name," she chimed in. "Every single day when he was still in the med school, Dr. Hurst used to come and sit right down and talk with me for a while. For real. Every day.  Even when he was in the wheel chair. He would talk to me about my heart and about my weight. Always teaching."

"He was always teaching!" laughed the gentleman.  "That dude loved talking about the heart!"

That dude.  Loved that reference.

"Well, you know, doc. I used to be more than 300 pounds.  Sure did.  Dr. Hurst told me he was worried about me and he kept on encouraging me to lose some weight. He was so nice about it, too. I lost more than a hundred pounds."

"Yep, and you know Dr. Hurst was the one who encouraged her to do that."  He looked at her and smiled. I smiled too.

(picture and story shared with permission)

"I know I wouldn't've never lost that weight if he hadn't kept on me.  I liked knowing that even though he was so busy and, you know, powerful and stuff, he always seemed like he had time for me."

"I feel the same way.  Tha's a good way to put it. He always had time.  Always, no matter who you was. It's good when people stop and see you."

"Wow," I said. I repeated his statement for emphasis. "'It's good when people stop and see you.'"

And we all just stood there together meditating on those words.  I glanced at my watch and realized it was time for me to get downstairs to teach small group.

"Hey, y'all, thanks for telling me about that.  And I'm sorry that we didn't do such a good job remembering the other people that cared about Dr. Hurst. I will remember that in the future."

"That's okay. I bet you nobody woulda thought Dr. Hurst spent so much time with people like us," he replied.

"People like us?"

"Yeah," he continued, "but that's okay. We knew who he was and we got our own memories just like the doctors and patients do. He was teaching us and seeing about us too."

Something about his words knocked the wind from my chest and made me feel on the tippy-tip edge of crying. I froze in place for a moment and let it resonate.

I released a big sigh and checked the time again. "Okay, y'all. I can talk to you guys all day so let me get going."

She smiled and said, "Alright then, doc. See you next time!"

Before I left, I reached out my hand to him and said, "By the way, I don't think we've formally met. My name is Dr. Manning."

"I know," he answered. "I know."

Happy Friday.


  1. I started reading your blog a little while ago, from a link posted by Elizabeth at a moon worn as if it had been a shell. And I don't think i've stopped to say hello, and that I get a great deal out of your words here, since then. So, hello! And love the thoughts and scenes of life you share here.

  2. really great story -- and I felt on the tippy edge of crying during it, too --

  3. This was very thought provoking. Some people are just not conscious of this it seems. I have to work at different sites all over the city & am therefore familiar with the janitorial staff that works at each site. I have witnessed sitting in an area & they approach to do their work. I always speak & acknowledge them & have become friendly with several of them. What I often notice is how many other co-workers that may be working near me totally ignore them, as if they are invisible ! Even when they hear me speak. I mean this is someone who is approaching your cubicle to empty your trash within a foot of your personal space & you don't speak ? It actually seems extremely rude. My parents taught me better. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Well I tell you something. Every chance I get to make some sort of personal contact with people, I try to do just that. I don't know what it is but it seems to me that if I don't, I'm missing out on some opportunity. Not for ME to teach anyone, but for me to have another window on another life, another culture, another human experience that I never would if I just walked right on by or was...indifferent. Yes.
    It's easy to be polite, just say "thanks," or whatever, but it's that next step, that step that acknowledges (and OH! I want to be acknowledged too!) our shared humanity in whatever situation we are in, that makes me feel richer every time.
    I loved this post, Sister Doctor. It made me feel richer, too.

  5. God bless, Dr. Hurst. What a credit to the medical profession.

    You are a credit to the profession as well. I wish you were my doctor. You have a very good heart.



  6. This story tipped me right into shedding a few tears. People being nice to other people does that to me.

  7. Plus, I really like that you got their permission.

  8. Beautiful! I've become misanthropic over the past year, and you're reminding me to shift that gear. And to lose weight.

  9. I love stories of hearts and niceness and kindness.
    Thank you.

  10. loving this, loving the truth in it- and that you're living it. missing you!

  11. Hey doc, haven't had a lot of time lately to catch up on my blog reading, so am just getting to this one. I think I've mentioned this before but I wanted to mention again how much I appreciate you sharing that you're always learning how to be human, just like the rest of us. It's easy to forget that none of us have done this before and are all making it up as we go! There's no instruction manual on being a good human being; I think you're doing a great job. :-)


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

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