Pediatrician, Heal Thyself

A lifetime ago, my friend, Joel Hershey, had an extra ticket to the Rep. Joel and his partner had season tickets, but his partner (whose name I don’t recall) had recently moved to San Francisco with the intention that Joel, who worked at Maritz, would look for a job out there and move out west later. In the meantime, Joel had an extra ticket and asked me if I’d like to join him. Ever thrifty, I said yes.

The play was “Our Country’s Good” about a group of British Royal Marines and convicts at a penal colony in the 1780s in New South Wales who put on a production of “The Recruiting Officer,” a 1706 play by the Irish playwright George Farquhar, none of which does matters at all to this story.

Nevertheless, the production was quite good, so I was in a buoyant, even gregarious, mood as we went out to the lobby for intermission. Immediately, though, Joel ran into a coworker. The two of them quickly became engaged in shop-talk conversation, and it became apparent that I was not going to be included in this tête-à-tête.

The same was evident to Joel’s friend’s companion, a cheerful woman with short curly red hair and a bright smile. She stepped toward me.

“Well, it looks like they’re not going to introduce us,” she said, nodding at our friends from Maritz. “I’m Pat Corrigan.” We shook hands. The name sounded familiar.

“I’m Ken Haller.”

“So, what do you do?” Pat asked.

“I’m a pediatrician.”

“Okay. Where do you practice?”

“East St. Louis.”

“Really?” she said, clearly intrigued. “Guilty Catholic?” she inquired.

“Uhh,” I grunted, taken off guard. “Maybe a little?” Like on “Jeopardy,” my answer was in the form of a question.

“Interesting. Tell me more about that.”

Joel and his work friend were still enraptured with one another, so I told Pat about going to Creighton University in Omaha where I met an African-American Jesuit named Joseph Brown who became my mentor, and who was from East St. Louis, and how I really liked the Jesuit “Men and women for others” mission thing. She listened and nodded.

“You know,” she said when I had finished, “I’m a reporter for the Post-Dispatch.” That’s where I knew her name from! And that’s why she was so good at asking very direct questions. “There might be a story in this. Do you mind if I talk to my editor about it?”

What I WANTED to say was, “Are you asking me if I would mind begin the subject of a likely very flattering story in a major American metropolitan newspaper that would be seen by tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people and which I could send copies of to my parents and my siblings and my friends and all the people from high school to make them feel proud if they had paid attention to me or jealous if they hadn’t while turning me into a minor celebrity — but a celebrity nonetheless — in St. Louis? Is THAT what you’re asking me? OF COURSE, you can ask your editor about this! I’ll be happy to wash your editor’s car, pick up their dry cleaning, and walk their dog if it will help!”

What I DID say was, “Sure. That would be fine.” We exchanged numbers, and though I expected nothing, I hoped for the best.

A couple of weeks later, I did hear from Pat. Her editor was interested. We set up a time for her to meet me at my house, and we drove across the Mississippi where she spent a “Day in the Life” with me. A photographer followed me on another day about a week later, and a few weeks after that the story was published as the cover story of the “Post-Dispatch Sunday Magazine,” locally called the “P-D Magazine.” This is the cover photo.

Of course, I bought lots of copies of it and mailed it to lots of people. This is the one I had framed that hangs in my office at Cardinal Glennon. I noticed it the other afternoon while I was dancing in my office.

So, well, yes, I do occasionally dance in my office. I was staffing late clinic that day which doesn’t start till 3:00 so I pulled up some old disco mega-mixes on my phone on YouTube, put in my earbuds, and did my thing for about a half hour. Hey, it’s great cardio! About halfway into a remix of The Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip,” the photo caught my eye.

“Pediatrician” And there I am: thin, with all that hair, holding up a baby to check muscle tone. And the date.

April 2, 1989.

Thirty-three years ago.

Almost half my life ago.

Almost three-quarters of my ADULT life ago.

I had not even been in East Saint Louis for three years by that point. I would continue there for another seven years before eventually crossing the river to work at Saint Louis University and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital where I’ve been for nearly 25 years now. At the time of this story, I remember feeling so many things about my life and my work: joy, insecurity, fear, anger, doubt. Still, one thing I knew even then was that — of all the paths I might have taken in my life — this path was worth the time and the energy, even when I had dark moments of wondering whether I was even doing this job very well.

So, looking back on the Me of half a lifetime ago, what I feel most is compassion. Within a year I would buy a house with the man I loved very, very much. Buying property together in those days was as close as two men could get to being married. Within a month of us moving in together, he told me he was in love with somebody else and moved out. This drove me to a very dark place where, on more mornings than I care to remember, I would wonder as I crossed the Mississippi River on my way to work whether I could drive off the side of that bridge in a way that would look like an accident.

One thing you might not be able to see in this photograph, old and faded as it is, is that my fingernails are very short. I bit my fingernails pretty fiercely until I was in my 40s. By 1989, I was doing a really good job of taking care of other people, but I had not learned the trick for myself yet.

Finally — thankfully — I reached out to get the therapy I had needed for a very long time. I had avoided it for so long because I thought, who am I to spend money on therapy when so many other people, especially the people I see every day, have problems that were so much more profound than mine and who needed help so much more than I did?

As my therapist listened to me, he nodded, and when I’d finished said, “You’re right. There are so many people who have problems so much worse than yours. The thing is, you are the only one who has your problems, and you have just as much right as anyone else to ask for help.”

The question I should have been asking myself is, why do you think you can solve other people’s problems without asking help for your own? What I really needed was humility. Humility I didn’t think I needed. Because I had put off taking care of myself for so long. Because everyone else needed so much more help than I did.

So I suppose that back then I framed this photograph for two reasons:

  • One was to convince myself that perhaps I had accomplished something good.

Today though, I see it as more of a challenge, occasionally even an accusation:

  • Have I lived up to my personal mission statement of creating a world of healing?

I will spend the rest of my life trying to answer those questions. For now, I have that photograph to remind me that I continuously have to seek out answers to those questions.

And while I do so, I will just keep on dancing.

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Ken Haller

Pediatrician, Educator, Singer, Writer, Advocate, Actor, Improviser. Views are my own, not those of any institution where I’m employed.