What I Learned at Med School

In April, California combs out her long, wet hair, and the hillsides turn silky and gold.

I love April the way Wordsworth loved daffodils. I love L.A. the way Hemingway loved vermouth.

What a place, what a country. The United States invented the nuclear bomb and Chinese chicken salad and some of the most-awful TV you could ever imagine.

As a nation, we have more heart than soul. What we lack in taste, we make up for with a cantankerous cowboy spirit.

Americans change too fast. We work too hard — at least those who work. Quite a work-optional system we’re building here. Envy of the world.

It’s a challenge sometimes not to give up. You eventually discover that the goal is never a goal. It is to keep on truckin’, as they used to say.

My buddy Roswell loves this one quote: “Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster. Wisdom is knowing Frankenstein is really the monster.”

Oh, that Roswell. He punctuates everything with a slight chuckle. Suzanne says I punctuate most sentences with some term of endearment. Morning, sunshine. What’s up, buttercup? Nice work, kiddo.  

Where does that fall between knowledge and wisdom? What does that say about my neediness and affinity to please?

Thanks, dude. Like you don’t have issues?

Meanwhile, I remain a simple man. I have barbecue sauce on my ankle and summer on my mind.

I continue to be a sucker for bar flies with little wisdoms, for teachers and librarians, nurses, office workers, tradesmen and architects — all the people who keep on truckin’ when they’re not even sure what the end game is.

“It may be that kindness is our best audition for a worthier world,” explains writer Michael Blumenthal.

Doubtful. But OK. Kindness is its own reward and all that, though it never got you a new BMW, did it?

As a society, we continue to celebrate hubris and triumph far more than we celebrate basic human decency. The Times ran a playful (and very clever) obit the other day honoring a vile (and fictional) TV mogul, a media Frankenstein, who once told his son: “I will use your bones to make my bread.”

Why do we celebrate that?

Then I got my Speed-O in a bundle when media types defended the lack of sportsmanship shown by a women’s basketball player.

“If female athletes want to succeed like men, then they have to behave like men,” was the gist of it.


I see no future in pursuing all the worst qualities of men. I also see very little celebration of basic human decency.

But glam onto this a second. Put this in your coffee and stir, stir, stir….

Years ago, Keanu Reeves first came to us as an under nuanced actor who couldn’t seem to locate his own mouth. Yet, he persevered. Over time, he has made a good career in one of the toughest professions of all.

By all accounts, he is a mensch, despite being dyslexic, despite being abandoned by his father at 3 and growing up with three different stepfathers. He’s a mensch despite losing a former girlfriend in a car wreck and his best friend to a drug overdose.

Paparazzi in Los Angeles once spotted him walking with a homeless man, sharing his life for hours.

There’s more … about how he will wait in line in the rain for his own premieres, or chat up strangers on subway trains.

Bottom line: Reeves’ life is more interesting than his movies. Despite the fame and privilege, Keanu Reeves remains a very decent person, auditioning each day for a worthier world.

The other day, I appeared on a panel before 200 USC med school grads. The topic: What qualities do patients appreciate most in a doctor?

The two other panelists – one a successful doctor herself, the other a very articulate artist – both had serious cancer scares. I’d lost my wife.

For 90 minutes, we talked about kindness, trust, capability, vulnerability and devotion. As with big movie stars, we decided that you can’t have everything till you tap into you’re your humanity.

My modest contribution was suggesting that all doctors are story tellers. They shape their patients’ lives.

I also praised my late wife’s oncologist for not filling every silence in the exam room — for allowing pauses in the conversation, as we absorbed and pondered the latest results. Little silences that lingered.

In those silences — in those long quiet courtesies — a poignancy ensued.

The doctor had quit treating my wife’s cancer.

In that moment, the doctor was treating her soul.

Hiking update: Our next Happy Hour Hiking Club adventure is a week away, on Saturday April 29. We’ll step off at mid-afternoon, for an easy 2.5-mile jaunt in La Canada, followed by beverages. More serious hikers have the option to continue further on a more challenging stretch. To RSVP, please email Letters@ChrisErskineLA.com. Space is limited. Cheers!

32 thoughts on “What I Learned at Med School

  1. Your best column yet. All medical students or interns should have a similar panel and invite you.

  2. Great column, Chris!
    I’ve also heard stories about what a decent, down to earth, humble person Keanu Reeves is. Makes me want to go out of my way to see movies he’s in that I wouldn’t normally have any desire to see.
    “Allowing pauses in the conversation”…such a wonderful skill, a skill that is not real common but so appreciated.

  3. Wow. Way to bring that home. So so sorry. Had to be difficult for you to communicate your experience but good on USC for staging a panel to reinforce the need for empathy, compassion, kindness and all the things that make good doctors great. Thank you!

  4. You said so much in this column..I read it 3 times and passed it on to friend.
    We all need to pay attention to our soul. Thanks again Chris.

  5. You ended this one with a poignant punch. Thanks for sharing and giving us something to reflect on h through or tears.

  6. This piece feels meaningful and fine to me. I like it best when you go deep rather than stunting in the brilliant sun as the juices of Spring float us all upward, so to do. My philosophy is simple: “live life like a poet, and life will be poetic.” But many memorable poets have not done so, there’s no agreement on what a poet’s life is, or even if there is such an experience; so it’s probably bogus. Yours seems much more practical, sweeter, as you say:kinder; better. Still, I try…

  7. Wonderful article, Chris! Kindness is much needed in today’s world.
    “I have barbecue sauce on my ankle and summer on my mind” is a true classic Erskineism. After two years of health problems, I am feeling better looking forward to enjoying another California endless summer.

  8. This piece just got more amazing as I read it….and then, that last line. It brought tears to my eyes. You are a most unique writer….you help more people than you will ever know.

  9. Thank you, for your column on kindness. So sorely needed this week after these senseless shootings! How wonderful to have panel for these grads. Empathy & listening sets good doctors into great doctors.

  10. The soul and tranquility of the article is so meaningful and I have to agree about the most awful TV, how has that happened?

  11. Such a great column, you’re right , most people don’t really listen. They’re just waiting to give their opinion. Please keep writing, you give us hope and inspiration.

  12. I miss Posh, although we never met. I am helping niece move through a probable terminal cancer diagnosis. Her oncologist agreed to a telephone appointment. He was so kind and understanding; which was so helpful, since my niece, who is schizophrenic, refuses any treatment. His humanity shone through the phone lines.

  13. He treated her soul, how lovely a thought, a memory, a realization. As an RN, I know there will always be a time for that.

  14. This article is timely for me, I’m glad I stumbled upon it and started reading your articles again. I’ve missed them. My step daughter is going through cancer, she’s only 45. Treating her soul is what we are attempting to do now until we get the news of her PET scan. Have a good weekend Chris 🙂

  15. Timely article, glad I stumbled upon you on Twitter. We are treating my step daughter’s soul now as she goes through cancer and still without answers. Thanks Chris, great reading you again!

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