Seeing Blindly

Jerome Groopman, M.D., is a professor at Harvard University Medical School, chief of experimental medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and one of the world’s leading researchers in cancer and AIDS.

In his excellent book, The Measure of our Days, he profiles eight of his patients.

One such patient was Elizabeth. She scheduled the appointment herself, explaining that she had a blood disease and needed to see a specialist immediately. Assuming he would hear of this emergency matter from her primary physician, Groopman agreed to see her. Much to Groopman’s surprise, however, the woman sauntered into his office without any explanation of who sent her or how she got in.

Elizabeth was tall and big—a 64-year-old woman sporting a thin smile, cool blue eyes and puffed silver-gray hair. She was carefully dressed to disguise her ample figure, her double-strand pearl necklace and emerald earrings were subtle, yet worn to be noticed. At their initial encounter, Groopman disdained this lady.

“Dr. Groopman is quite an unusual name,” she said before sharing any of her medical history. “Is it Dutch? Has your family been here long?”

“It is Dutch, and it is an unusual name,” Dr. Groopman politely replied. “Actually, we’re the only family I know of in the U.S. with that name. We’re Jewish. My grandfather was originally from Kiev in Russia. He escaped a pogrom in the 1880s and made his way to Amsterdam. The name 'Groopman’ was acquired there. He came to America in the early 1900s.”

“What a charming story!” Elizabeth bubbled. “Well, we say in Boston that the mayor should be Irish, the barber Italian, and the doctor a Jew. We’ll see, won’t we?”

Groopman recoiled at her nerve. In his book he captures the tension of that moment:

I sat speechless, uncertain how to respond. We had just met, she as a patient in need, I as the doctor she had sought out. Was her remark a benign attempt at upper-class humor or a provocation?

If I ignored it, it might appear to be sign of weakness or shame about my identity. If I reacted sharply, it would divert us from the focus of the visit—her health—and I would not fulfill my role as a physician. [1]

That’s when Groopman focused on a drawing that hung next to his desk. It pictured a man with a full black beard and white turban seated on a chair that rested on parallel pillars of Hebrew and English calligraphy. Directing Elizabeth’s attention to that picture, he said, “That man is Moses Maimonides, a physician and rabbi who lived in the twelfth century. He worked in the court of the sultan of Cairo by day and cared for the destitute of that city by night. He began each day with the prayer that forms the two pillars:

Deem me worthy of seeing,

In the sufferer

Who seeks my advice,

A person

Neither rich nor poor,

Friend nor foe,

Good nor evil.

Show me only the person.

Groopman struggled to see only the person in Elizabeth. I, too, struggle to see only the person—being blind to one’s social status or skin color. That’s why I keep this ancient poem handy.

The Bible reminds us “that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34, 35, NIV). I’m wondering: Could we put a dent in the prejudice that poisons our world if we all lived this text? I’m sure willing to try; what about you?

[1] Jerome Groopman, M.D., The Measure of our Days, (New York: Viking, 1997), p. 169.

February 01, 2007 / Fresh Start