Observing the cycles of life

Balance in Practice

Thomas Waldinger, MD

This month's author discusses listening to his patients and finding relaxation and focus through cycling.

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One of my favorite times of the day is riding my bike around my hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich. On weekends, it’s a chance to get together with friends and enjoy their company. During the week, I bike by myself, and the experience becomes almost a meditative one. You see, I like to ride exactly the same route every day. Somewhere along the way, the familiarity of hundreds of identical rides kicks in and I’m able to tune out every other care and lose myself in reflection.

I make it a point to stop at the University of Michigan Matthaei botanical gardens —  I always find it interesting to see the changes in the trees, the different plants in bloom, and the movement of nature. It reflects the quiet, peaceful balance that we would all hope to achieve in our lives.

Taking up cycling over the last few years has given me more time to reflect on my work as a physician and the balance that I try to bring to my life. It allows me to distill my thoughts about my life and reflect on the wisdom, courage, and faith I have learned from my patients' life experiences, and as an author, I always appreciate that.

For some of us, finding balance can be about pursuing a hobby very much the opposite of what we fill our weekdays with. We paint or fish, cook, travel or pursue an athletic endeavor. For me, I achieve more balance in my life not only from cycling but by learning from my patients. Since 1998, I've been collecting and publishing the stories of my patients.[pagebreak]

Sharing stories

Collecting stories from my patients is something that started in 1998 shortly after the loss of my mentor, Dr. John Ulrich. He meant a great deal to me as a physician and as a person. I struggled with the loss for some time, and eventually decided I wanted to honor him in some way. I had this overarching feeling that there was something specific I had to do. I just didn’t have any idea what course to pursue. Eventually, it came to me that collecting stories from my patients and presenting them to Dr. Ulrich's wife on the one-year anniversary of his passing would be a heartfelt tribute to Dr. Ulrich's memory.

This project grew in scope and as I was learning about the lives and wisdom of my patients it stimulated my own writing and what was a personal endeavor became my first book, The Wisdom of Life Through My Patients (PWM/U of M Press). The process of collecting the stories of my patients almost immediately transformed my sadness into something positive.

I learned more about Dr. Ulrich from talking with my patients, and noticed that I was also learning more about myself. I recognized that even though I had these wonderful relationships with my patients prior to writing about them, our relationships deepened in ways that I never would have expected. I had a much greater appreciation for them, and that was quite remarkable to me.

My approach for these stories was asking my patients, “If you only had one hour to live, what would you want to tell your children or loved ones?” I told them that instead of platitudes, to think of something they had never told anyone, something that they thought would help their loved ones when they were gone. I’ve always had a very close relationship with my patients, so the even richer, deeper relationship that was achieved through this process came as something of a surprise to me. When you appreciate the extraordinary faith, love, and caring of your pateints in the face of formidable challenges, it’s an honor when they come into your office and you know they have chosen you to provide their care. [pagebreak]

I talked to about 250 patients in total, and used only a portion of the stories that I was able to collect. What was really fascinating is that I felt an increased respect for every single patient I saw, even those I did not end up asking to provide stories. Just the process of talking about some patients’ lives gave me a much greater appreciation of every single patient that came into my office. Those who did share were remarkable — it brought even greater enjoyment to my life as a physician.

Writing songs

At the end of writing my first book, my patient, editor, and close friend, Mrs. Bette Mys, who has helped me for 16 years with the writing process, asked if I would consider writing a poem for the introduction. One of my secret passions at the time was that I'd always wanted to write lyrics for songs. It was just one of those things that I didn't have time for between all the other things in my life. But here was the perfect opportunity to try it. [pagebreak]

So I wrote the poem, Listen to the Whispers, and as it turned out, Bette had been reading my book to her former student and friend of over 50 years — Stevie Wonder. Steve Wonder shared with Bette that he felt a connection to the book and poem and agreed to create a song for my poem. A new project began — writing lyrical poems for Stevie Wonder to create songs. I've written over 20 poems for him, and the album is getting close to release. This became the genesis for my book, Listen to the Whispers.

Had I not started this project and spent time listening to the stories of my patients, I might never have had the opportunity to achieve one of my life-long dreams. Every aspect of working as a physician and an author has been a joy. These two parts of my life complement and enhance each other. The whole episode has taught me the value of enjoying the process.

Most of our lives as physicians, we’re trying to help our patients with their medical concerns. It’s our mission, and we should always be striving to improve our scientific understanding. However, combining this scientific knowledge with compassion, caring, and a commitment to personal relationships has better sustained me as a physician and a person. If you can incorporate humanism into your practice, it will improve every aspect of your life.

Dr. Waldinger is the author of three books, The Wisdom of Life Through My Patients, Stretch Our Souls, and Listen to the Whispers.His honors include Best Doctors™ (1996-2003) and he is the 2012 recipient of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation Humanism in Medicine Award.

For an online-exclusive slideshow of Dr. Waldinger's daily ride, click here.

Bonus online content

For a slideshow featuring Dr. Waldinger’s favorite cycling locations along with more of his thoughts on treating patients, click here.



Bonus online content
Bonus online content