by Phyllis Brown
Parking garage located, check. Women’s changing room, check. Locker, check. Blue scrub top tucked into cotton drawstring pants, check. Pager holstered to hip in appropriately cool fashion, double check. I looked the part. Now, if I could act the part. It was my first day as a wet-behind-the-ears intern. I had barely tied my shoes when the crisp British accent of the hospital operator announced on the overhead page, “OB to Labor and Delivery STAT.” I looked around to see who would run out of the changing room to cover the page, but then realized, I was the OB doctor on duty.
I swung through the double doors of the delivery room and was greeted by Nurse Betty, a red-haired battle-axe with a smoker’s laugh. She had been teaching interns the basics of their craft for thirty years. This was July 1, the day newly-minted interns and residents picked up the clinical baton from the graduating class and took on their new roles as physicians. This was a day that the general public should be warned to get not sick, but Nurse Betty would not have missed it for all of the Lucky Strikes in Virginia.
There was a glint in Betty’s eyes as she twirled me around by the shoulder and showed me to the scrub sink with the hair caps, soap and sponges. She growled in my ear, “Multip, at term ready to crown, just hold the head at the perineum. Dr. Johansson is coming from his office. Don’t worry, I’ve taught a hundred newbies just like you. But please, for God’s sake, just don’t shake.”
I swallowed hard. I had survived four years of undergraduate education and four years of medical school. By gosh, I had earned the right to stand before a woman in labor and assist in the birth of her baby. But now this five-foot-four, 200-pound tank was telling me not to shake?
Well, she was right: The hardest part was to not shake.
The delivery was a joy. I even had time to get my gown and gloves on before a wet mop of black hair attached to a perfectly pink, squirming little girl rolled out of her mother’s vagina. I cleaned the mucus from the nose, clamped and cut the cord, and placed the blanketed package into the mother’s arms, all under the watchful eye of Nurse Betty.
I was rather proud of my first professional achievement until I fumbled the placenta and it fell onto my brand new running shoes. Nurse Betty howled, “Thank God, you at least didn’t get the floor dirty!”
After I signed the birth certificate and gave my best to the new family, tears welled in my eyes. I am still not sure if it was from the joy of participating in the miracle of birth or immense gratitude that Nurse Betty went out to have a smoke.
From Doctor to Retiree
Twenty-five years later, dread soured my stomach and tightened my throat. Tears filled my eyes. I was going to announce that I had delivered my last baby and was prepared for retirement. I had even more trepidation than my first day with Nurse Betty. As a young intern I had an inkling what my life as an OB-GYN would look like, but nearing retirement I had no idea what my life would be after my practice drew to a close.
I remember the words I said in farewell to my group: “Leaving my life as an OB-GYN will create a large hole in my heart; it has been a profession that I have loved and has given me so much.” I went on to say, “But a hole is also the creation of space, a space where something new can grow. In the garden I dig a hole to plant a new tree and in this hole in my heart I know something new will also take root.”
That hole did begin to fill in with caring for my granddaughter, tennis, organic gardening and a rafting trip down the Colorado River. A year passed and I began to struggle. I knew that there had to be something else. I missed the diverse connections that my career in medicine had given me. I missed giving back to my community and the joy I experienced in return. I did not immediately know how to replace those relationships from my clinical work, but I had to go forward. I did have confidence that my natural curiosity would find the right activity to fill the hole in my heart, letting me once again access the richness of life.
From Retiree to Writer
The next summer, while wandering the aisles at Powell’s Bookstore, I discovered a fundraiser: a writing workshop for a local non-profit that supports writing in various social service settings in our community. It intrigued me.
I listened intently as the facilitator’s calm voice offered up the writing prompt, “In the back of my garage … .” I grabbed a fresh journal page and began to scribble about a cobweb-covered box filled with broken Ninja Turtles and a forgotten rock collection. It was a junk box, but the objects told the story of my family, my life.
I waited for the rest of the group to finish their work. I sighed. When I signed up for the workshop, I thought I could be an observer, a listener. I thought I could observe how the creative mind worked, explore the world of the written word and, most importantly, listen to the stories of others. I did not realize that the writing life would draw me in.
When it was time to share our work, I moved from story-listener to story-teller. The words tightened in my throat. The facilitator offered me a tissue even before I knew I was going to need it. The tears let loose and so did my story. James, an engineer, broke the silence after my reading.
“I really like the part,” he said, “where the narrator goes down to the curb in her nightgown and retrieves the box from recycling. It was so real. I wanted to hear more. I wanted to know what was in that box.”
I loosened the grip on the tissue in my hand. I felt such a relief that my story had connected with someone else. I had never thought of myself as a writer, just like so many years ago, I did not think of myself as a doctor.
I still stumble when I call myself a writer. But I do practice writing every day. Some days I just copy lines from books that I have read. I read them out loud and enjoy the feel of the words on my tongue. Some evenings I tell my husband that I am going upstairs to play in my sandbox with my imaginary friends. Fortunately, he laughs. He knows I am not crazy. He also knows not to disturb me while I am working on a story.
On Thursdays you will find me with my writing group, Broads on the Side, as they push me further into this writing life. On other days, I work as a volunteer writing facilitator for Write Around Portland. I offer up prompts and the cycle repeats. I watch the miracle of the writing life begin anew. I observe participants in the workshop free their first piece from their internal world into the open air. I marvel at our shared journey – just as I marveled at that first wet, wiggling girl I wrapped for a mama on that hot July day many years ago.
Phyllis Brown is a young writer in an old woman’s body. She did not even consider a personal writing practice until her retirement from a career as an OB-GYN physician and the last of her four children left the nest. She is an avid cyclist, tennis player, organic gardener, yoga student and dog walker. And she loves to cook ethnic food. On a recent trip to China, she lived on a yak farm and had an up-close look at the Chinese medical system. About her second act as a writer, Phyllis says: “It’s a lot like being a college freshman, except I get to choose my writing assignments.”