“Do You Miss Not Working?”

In the past two weeks, I’ve bumped into several of my old patients.  When we pediatricians say “patients,” it doesn’t mean just the kids we cared for.  It means the whole family.   In order to be a happy pediatrician, you don’t just have to love children. You have to love their families too.  It is important to fully understand family dynamics in order to enjoy practicing pediatrics.

The question I am most often asked when I see people from the past is if I miss working.   It’s been more than six years now since I retired, and there’s never been a day that I wished that I could go back to work. I have been very happy staying busy with so many other projects that it is hard to imagine having to work at the same time.  Additionally, in a very practical way, I would have found it impossible to wear a mask the whole day.  It’s not just the problem of my glasses fogging up constantly.  If can’t totally see a person’s face, I would find it hard to communicate. 

I would hate having to wear a mask since my glasses get fogged up!

More importantly, the one thing that I do miss is the personal interaction with the babies.  I used to pride myself on being able to take a crying baby and get them to smile within a few seconds.  My staff used to call me “the baby whisperer.”  Interestingly, this never worked as well with my own children, but with my patients, I loved holding a baby in my arms, and magically, they would smile.

My favorite age of babies was from six months to a year.   This is when you would observe the early signs of alertness and interpersonal connection, and it was so gratifying to be able to tell the parents that their baby was developing normally.  Nowadays, the biggest fear among parents is that their child may be on the autism spectrum.   The incidence of developmental disorders seems to have increased over the span of my career (starting in the 1980s), and parents are relieved when I would reassure them at a very early age that everything appeared OK.  I loved seeing the look of relief on parents’ faces, especially first-time parents. Experienced pediatricians can spot developmental issues earlier than most people, and we are well aware of how very young babies normally focus on facial expressions such as smiling and eye contact.

In our practice, we offered new parents who had not yet chosen a pediatrician to come for a “newborn consult.”  These new parents were hungry for information and guidance, and became some of the most loyal and trusting patients.  The bonding that occurred from that initial visit and then continued after the baby’s birth is something that many parents recalled many years later at my retirement party. 

I was very fortunate to live in a very diverse community in South Florida.   There were some patients who were attracted to my practice because I spoke Spanish, but I loved the assortment of other ethnic groups that I would see on a daily basis.  There were families from many Spanish-speaking countries, but in my panel of patients, I had patients from India, China, Brazil, Finland, the Philippines, Thailand, Viet Nam and Korea. 

Since the schedule of check-ups is heavily concentrated during the baby’s first year, I got to know the parents very well during those “well-visits.”  Many grandparents attended these visits along with the parents, so I would often become familiar with the extended family. 

An experienced pediatrician can do a complete check-up in a very short period of time, so the rest of the visit is left open for discussion about whatever concerns the parents may have had.  As the parents became less anxious and fell into a routine (especially after the babies started to sleep through the night after about six months), we had much more time to talk about other topics.  I was always interested in their native languages and their cultures, sometimes to the point that parents would invite me to visit their countries.

I was always interested in their cultures, sometimes to the point that the parents would invite me to visit their countries.

I used to joke with patients that I might take them up on their offers.  My wife and I have unique memories of Japan, Bali, Finland, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Ecuador, Brazil, Turkey, Spain, Angola, Israel and India because I accepted these invitations.  Sometimes they were there while we were traveling, but more often, we had the opportunity to visit their relatives whom I had met in my office.  Every one of those visits was a special personal experience, much more than any of the usual tourist attractions.  At first, my wife was leery, thinking that it would be awkward to visit people’s homes, as she wondered if these people really had been sincere about inviting us.  After a few of these special visits, she looked forward to the meet-ups that I would try to plan into every trip. 

Early in my career, I started to give out small, framed photos of places that I had traveled to.  The kids enjoyed getting something to remember from their yearly check-ups, and surprisingly, many parents would ask for their own “Dr. Kraft pictures.”  This became a tradition so I would bring along these small pictures on our travels as an ice-breaker or as a way of thanking people for their hospitality or other special favors.

In Bali, Indonesia, where the children were showing off the gifts I gave them!

I loved teaching patients about the places that were seen in my photo gifts.  I would usually tell the school-age children to read up more on the countries where we had traveled. 

So back to the question about whether I miss working.  What I loved about being a pediatrician was that I was often considered a trusted friend to those families.  Since pediatrics is a long-term commitment (in my case, 35 years), I was very fortunate to have met so many marvelous families over several generations.   Now that even though I am, in a way, “out of the picture,” I have wonderful memories and several long-lasting friendships to savor.

Not me, but another happy pediatrician! Photo courtesy of dreamstime

A Random Act of Kindness

My wife and I were on a plane a last year on a short flight from Rome to Brindisi in the region called Puglia in the southern part of Italy. 

Rome to Puglia

As we were starting to taxi down the runway, I heard a child crying a few rows behind us, but it was very different than a baby’s or a normal child’s crying.  It reminded me when I have experienced autistic children screaming, usually from fear.  I was quickly able to determine that he was Asian and the parents were not, so I guessed that he was an adopted child. 

My original text

When I heard that little boy’s scream, my heart felt the parents’ anguish since it was obvious they were completely beside themselves.  Even though we were only a few minutes in the air and the flights attendants had not even given the OK to move around, I stood up and went over to their seats. In my basic Italian, I told them that I was a pediatrician and that I would be happy to help them if they would let me. 

Sitting with my wife

As I picked up the boy, he immediately took my hand and looked at me as I was hugging him tightly, and within about 30 seconds stopped crying!  I rocked him for a while and then returned with him to my nearby seat to where my wife was sitting.  Our new friend sat with her while I talked to the parents. He reacted positively to her as well and remained calm while she showed him pictures on her phone.

Although the flight was only about 50 minutes, it seemed like hours!  I sat with the parents and within 15 minutes with the help of Google Translate, I had taken a complete history!  They had adopted him two weeks before in China and had spent every day with him since.  They were in the process of flying back to their home in Lecce, the same town in southern Italy where we were going. After almost 24 hours of non-stop traveling, they were beyond exhausted.  The father showed me scratches from where their son had dug his nails, probably in frustration.   He was probably feeling totally out of his normal environment, with everyone looking different and speaking language he didn’t understand. 

I tried to imagine what the little boy was thinking!    He must have been overtired, scared and overstimulated. And in the back of my mind, I thought that he might have some serious developmental issues which were being tested to the hilt in this new environment. 

While we were waiting to retrieve our luggage, the parents wanted to thank us by taking us on a tour around their city of Lecce.  I was looking forward to seeing them again so that I’d be able to see what kind of adjustment their child was making to his new surroundings.  Right before they were supposed to pick us up, the father sent a text saying that their son was asleep.  I agreed that it was better that they should not wake him up. We never wound up seeing them, but they did communicate that he was slowly getting used to life with his new family in Italy.

In retrospect, I wonder what impulse made me decide to jump out of my seat to help this child and his family.  As a pediatrician, I heard and recognized the sound of a child in distress.  More likely, however, was that as an adoptive father myself, I sensed how desperate the parents must have felt.  

I’m not sure why my intervention worked, but I certainly would do it again if the situation presents itself.