Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Heart of Inspiration

Below is the combination of several pieces that I've written about my granddad and the story of his lectures which were given to me this past summer. I wanted to post this version, which I recently submitted for a school project. I think that (finally) this tells the whole story in the way that I wanted. Apologies to my frequent readers who are probably tired of hearing me harp on about all of this. 

I thought the timing was interesting, as this is another week where I've needed some major inspiration to keep my head up. 


My Beginning

I remember the exact moment that I decided to become a doctor. I was seven years old and standing in the front pew at my granddad’s funeral. I had been listening, really listening, to what the mourners in that packed church had to say. Granddad was a doctor. The eulogists spoke of his wisdom, generosity, and kindness. I heard references to his medical innovation, his skill as a physician, and his dedication to patients. Throughout the speeches there were murmurs and nodding of heads, dabbing of eyes. I was mesmerized by the sea of stricken faces behind me, feeling the powerful impact his life had had on all of these people. I saw very clearly a glimpse of what a meaningful life looked like, the legacy that was left behind. I knew I wanted to leave a similar mark on the world and I remember determining, in my seven-year-old mind, that like my grandfather, I would be a doctor.

Long Before That

My granddad, Russ Taylor, fought in WWII. For his service as a navigator in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he was granted free tuition in the university and program of his choice.  As a fifteen-year-old Russ had heard Norman Bethune, famous humanitarian and champion of universal medicine, speak at his high school.  From that time on Russ had wanted to study medicine. But the Taylors were a farm family with six children so Russ had attended normal school to become a teacher. And as well, in a part-time job his hand had been deformed in a printing press.  He never imagined that because of the war his dream would be realized.

For his post-war training Russ chose biochemistry and medicine at McGill and went on to become, first, a legendary rural family doctor and eventually a polio expert. He was on the team of physicians who brought the first iron lung to Canada. In his forties Russ studied internal medicine and then specialized in cardiology.  After further training at McGill he returned to set up the first Cardiac Care Unit (CCU) in Alberta.

Even after being diagnosed with cancer Russ Taylor continued to work in cardiology, still visiting his long-surviving polio patients.  In his last months he wrote an account of the polio epidemic for the university and he was working on a cardiology textbook when he died. The cardiac ICU at the University of Alberta hospital is named the Russell F. Taylor ward in his honor.

It almost feels wrong to extol the virtues and accomplishments of this truly humble man who was never comfortable with praise. Because I was a child when he died most of my knowledge of him is second-hand. I have only a handful of my own memories… watching  him play the piano, sitting with my head on his chest listening to his mechanical heart valve (consequence of childhood rheumatic fever), sharing scrambled eggs with him in the morning before he left for ward rounds.  I also remember clearly that he was one of the few adults who spoke and listened to me with genuine interest and delight… with respect for my personhood.

 All of my life I've been steeped in stories of his astounding medical career, his profound love of medicine, his intelligence, insatiable curiosity, and his interest in the world around him. Each of these stories is locked in my memory coupled with the sadness that I was never able to know him as a health care practitioner, myself. Sad that I could never hear his opinions on certain procedures, ethical dilemmas, learn what he loved about medicine, or find out what frustrated him. Ultimately, I feel cheated that I never was able to have him as a mentor. Others have often described him to me as the 'greatest teacher and mentor' and yet I never had the opportunity to learn from him.

My Granddad’s Voice

In the spring of 2011 my mother woke up one night thinking about a couple who been good friends of my Granddad’s, Dora and Richard Lam.  Dora had arrived in Canada as a young Chinese woman, to study at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary. After finishing her secretarial program she became my Granddad's medical secretary. Over time she and her husband, Richard, developed a close friendship with Granddad.  At that time Richard was a masters student trying to gain entry into medical school.

Knowing how much I valued learning more about my grandfather’s life, my mother set about trying to find the Lams in the hope I could someday meet them.  And I did meet them.

It was the week before my writing of the USMLE. I was feeling guilty for taking a day off from cramming for the exam, but at the same time I was looking forward with delight to meeting them and gleaning a few more details to add to the mental portrait I have of Granddad.  It makes me feel somehow closer to him when I hear about him from people whose lives he touched.

According to Richard, it was my Granddad's letter of reference that got him into medical school. His interviewer commented on the weight that a recommendation from Dr. Russ Taylor carried. Dora claims my Granddad was very much like a father to her, and that she would never have become a "damn good lawyer" if it hadn't been for his continuous support and encouragement. When people with tears welling up in their eyes tell you things, you simply have to believe that they are telling the truth.

At one point during our lunch, Dora pulled out a small bag that she had brought in with her.  She told me it was something that she'd kept for the past 30 years, through three residential moves…something she wanted me to have. Even before she pulled out the contents I felt my pulse quicken. "This is going to be a treasure," I thought. It didn't matter what it was...whether it was going to be an old pager, or a chart he had signed, a fountain pen...anything. I couldn't wait to see what the gift was.

Dora handed me a collection of audio tapes. All the hours of my Granddad's cardiology lectures to 3rd year medical students.

She had been the one who typed up the manuscripts for him, and she had kept the old reel-to-reel tapes in a box in her basement. "These are his lectures on cardiology and his notes for the cardiology textbook that he was working on. I could never bring myself to throw them away. And now I know why,” she told me.

I was overcome with emotion.

All my life, all my adult life I have wished that I could hear my granddad speak to me about medicine.  And now that would happen. I couldn't contain myself. The tears poured down my cheeks. There in the trendy restaurant with a handful of photographs on the table and an empty coffee cup to stare into, I could not wrap my head around it. There in the final week of a very challenging year, studying for a terrifying exam, feeling completely over my head, second guessing myself at every turn…at that moment my Granddad's actual voice was given to me.

It was the boost I needed. Granddad speaking to me across the years, reaching me through people whom he loved. Talking with the Lams about their careers and about Dr. Taylor’s vocation for medicine gave me an immeasurable dose of determination and renewed my understanding of why I chose this path. It was not only because he was great physician, but because I could see how his example and his legacy continues to move and inspire others to meet challenges and make contributions.

I have finally been able to listen to my grandfather’s voice, the sound of which I had forgotten. I hear him talk about his passion, about something that inspired awe in him…Medicine.   


The radio show, White Coat, Black Art is a national program hosted by Dr. Brian Goldman, which airs on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) twice weekly. Dr. Goldman is an emergency physician and best-selling author, and one of my medical heroes. I was thrilled when he contacted me last summer and asked me to appear on the show, for a piece they were doing on nurse and physician communication styles. When his producer asked me if I’d like to contribute again to the show I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to bring the story of these tapes to life and create a radio piece with excerpts from the lectures.

When the show entitled Inspiration aired on Christmas Eve, it was very well received. A former RN who had worked with Dr. Taylor heard the show and emailed the host to say how much she had enjoyed being a colleague of Russ Taylor’s for years on the CCU. It was also a delight for our family to hear him over the radio waves after all these years… the sound of his voice rousing memories.

My Granddad loved listening to CBC, often sitting in his car in front of the house to hear the end of a program before coming in from a house call, or in later years retreating to his study to listen to a program on his old radio. It was a strange and wonderful gift exchanged between us…these tapes with his voice and my voice responding to them through the radio show. But the lasting gift was to me from him…a reminder of who set me on this path, why I chose it, and how I’ll carry on. Rededicated to my childhood ambition of twenty-five years ago… I will be a doctor.


thundercat said...

I went to medical school and did my internal medicine training at the U of A. I love all the old graduating class posters and reading all the old plaques on the wall. Thank you for sharing your piece of history with us and shedding some light on those golden names on the wards.

Albinoblackbear said...

Glad you enjoyed. :) Thank you for your comment.