The first time I walked into Dr. B’s office 20-something years ago, I didn’t know what to expect.
All my primary doctors had been black, but black doctors were scarce.
I had to trust that whoever came through the door to examine me would be someone who treated every patient the same regardless of race, ethnicity or status.
James P. Baraglia, M.D. — affectionately known as “Dr. B” — turned out to be that person.
For more than two decades, I have trusted him to help me maintain my health.
He nagged me until I finally stopped smoking — for good. He showed me the value of regular exercise by working out every day — come scorching heat or freezing hawk.
During a routine breast exam, he found a malignant lump so tiny I couldn’t even feel it.
Dr. B has held my hand through several health scares — real and imagined.
But most of all, he has always treated me with not only professional courtesy, but with … I don’t know … je ne sais quoi? And that made me feel like I was his favorite patient.
So when I received my “Dear Patient” letter informing me that he would be retiring effective Dec. 31, 2018, I was stunned.
“No. No. No,” I wanted to cry. “Who’s going to look after me now?”
I’m not alone in my angst.
According to recent surveys, one in four practicing physicians in the U.S. is over age 60, and most of them will retire in the next five years.
After sulking for a few weeks, I made my final appointment with Dr. B.
“Why now?” I asked him.
We’ve had countless conversations about everything from milestones to politics, and Dr. B. has always been candid. This time, he answered me in a poignant essay.
Here are a few excerpts:
“The answer is both simple and complex. Our world seems to be chaotic — anger, violence and despair have taken the place of peace, acceptance and hope. We need reasonable people with the power and ability to reverse this alarming trend. I’m sure that people of good will, from all generations, would willingly do their part to meet this goal.
In the meantime, this gave me a sense of urgency. It is important to me to spend time with my family and friends, open new chapters in my life and build everlasting pleasant memories. And the time for that is now, while my health and mind are sound. So as I approach my 70th year, having practiced medicine for 43 years, I decided to take the opportunity to gracefully exit.”
A recent study by CompHealth, a healthcare staffing firm, found that most physicians wanted to keep working “due to the enjoyment of the practice of medicine, and the social aspects of working.”
Dr. B apparently also struggled with his decision to “hang up his stethoscope.”
“[I] feel reservation and remorse in that decision. I was honored to have patients that allowed me to be a part of their lives, regardless of color, race, religion or income. Many of these patients have become friends and I will miss caring for them and their families in their times of need. Our conversations went beyond medical care. We often discussed life in general, sports, travel, family, and even politics. I will forever cherish these conversations.”
Having practiced medicine for four decades, he offers some sage advice for doctors just starting their careers:
As health care costs escalate, administrations and corporations become larger and more powerful. This is an unintended consequence in a system that seeks to provide the best medical care available, and has forced many physicians to become employed by institutions or groups. … But something is missing. … I believe it is the ‘art of medicine.’… [W]hat about the essential patient-doctor relationship — sitting with a patient or family, getting to know them, their concerns and what makes them tick??? Being concerned about aspects of their life beyond their medical needs is critical to good patient care.”
Dr. Baraglia had always wanted to be a physician, and in 8th grade, he was struck by a quote from Dr. W.C. Alvarez: “I know of no other work which gives such a soul-filling and life-long satisfaction…”
But it was the simple words from another doctor — Dr. Seuss — that became Dr. Baraglia’s favorite saying:
“Don’t cry because it is over — smile because it happened.”
Thank you, Dr. B, for happening to me.