As the daughter of a doctor dad, I grew up in a house full of curiosities.There was the stethoscope, of course, always an object of fascination. There were pens, pads of papers, and various knickknacks imprinted with mystic words like ofloxacin and beclovent. There were thin glossy publications that arrived by mail, with tiny print and no pictures except for graphs or black and white X-ray images. These would gather in teetering stacks around the house. Every few years, we brought them by the trunkload to a book binder, where they transformed into matching volumes with “Chest” or “NEJM” in gold letters down the spines. What was the purpose of these volumes? What would we do with them when we ran out of shelf space in the back room? Would anyone ever read them, or were they merely decoration?
Mom talked about things you could understand: carpool, laundry, summer plans. Dad spoke to us kids about ordinary concepts: our grades, the progress of the small backyard vegetable garden, which game we wanted next for the Atari. However, Dad’s conversations with adults often bewildered me. I would listen to his landline calls during dinner (on the rare nights he was actually home for the meal), or late into the night. What were interns and residents? Were there actual swans at the hospital? (I later learned about the Swan-Gantz catheter.) What were liver rounds? (I later realized they involved socializing and beer.) When we went to the library or to synagogue, strangers would stop Dad to ask the most intimate questions, often, it seemed, about what brand of laxative to use. Was that something adults could talk about in public? And wasn’t Dad supposed to be a lung doctor? Other times, a man or woman would rush toward us in the mall parking lot, face aglow. “You saved my life!” They would pat his back or pump his arm in a handshake. Could it be true? My dad, a lifesaver?
Honestly, I knew that my father spent an awful lot of time at the hospital and the office, but I couldn’t picture exactly what he did there. I don’t remember hearing many patient stories, likely because I wouldn’t understand and because of the strict codes of confidentiality. However, now that my father is retired and I am a physician myself, Dad has started telling me more about his years in pulmonary medicine. There is much to fascinate: advances in technology and therapeutics, the occasional rare and brilliant diagnosis, the various eccentric and outlandish patients and coworkers that he met over the course of a long career. And then there’s the stuff that’s just simply weird and unforgettable. My favorite story, which fits into this last category, is about a cursed tie. He tells it like this:
“The neckties were buy one-get one. I didn’t really like the second one, so I didn’t wear it for months. The first time I wore it was on a Friday. Late afternoon, I returned to discuss discharge with a patient just transferred from the MICU and who had been in respiratory failure from Guillain-Barre Syndrome. His wife greeted me with ‘Dr. Schiffman, I like your tie.’ I intended to keep the patient for another two days but he insisted on immediate discharge.
While rounding Sunday morning, I received a call from his wife. She had returned home from church and found him dead, on the floor, in a pool of blood, post-suicide. A few days later his HIV test returned positive and we subsequently learned of a secret life.
On the second wearing of the tie, about a month later, I ran into a patient of mine (an artist) who was on her way to see another doctor. She poked her finger onto the tie (I can still feel it on my sternum whenever I think of it) and exclaimed, ‘Dr. Schiffman, I like your tie.’
About two weeks later, in the hospital hallway, on my way to the bronchoscopy suite and wearing that same tie for a third and last time, I saw that patient again. She had just been diagnosed with a melanoma on that same finger.
When I entered the bronchoscopy suite, one of the two nurses greeted me with, ‘Dr. Schiffman, I like your tie.’ I jokingly said ‘Take that back, it’s unlucky to say that about this tie.’
Two days later, while wearing a different tie, on entering the bronchoscopy suite, another nurse exclaimed, ‘Dr. Schiffman, I like that tie.’ The other nurse in the room immediately shrieked at her, ‘Take that back, it’s unlucky.’ I laughed and told her it was a different tie. The nurse, who had complimented the ‘unlucky’ tie two days before had left early that day. Her son, on returning home from school, while attempting to cook a snack, had set the house on fire (he was OK). The patient, awaiting his procedure, upon hearing this, had reservations about having a doctor wearing an unlucky tie perform his procedure.
Over 30 years have passed and that tie remains hanging in the closet, never to be worn again; throwing it out would be admitting to superstition and I certainly could not donate to Goodwill and have someone else wear it. So there it will remain.”
I love this story for so many reasons. It's like a goofy “Dad joke” about a quirky tie, mixed with the profound mystery of the medical profession: Why does this person get cancer and this one does not? How will your daily banter touch a life? How do you hold onto all the secrets that unspool into your office and change the way you view humanity? Is there something you could have, should have, done differently to change a horrid outcome? Maybe something as simple as wearing a different accessory.
Growing up with a doctor parent can be a blessing and a curse. I missed out on a lot of time with my father growing up; it was before the days of so-called work-life balance, and many of my memories involve him simply not being there. And yet, I was inspired by knowing that he was off doing something that was important and valued. I didn’t understand a lot of what I saw growing up, but I could recognize that medicine was a profession of lifelong learning and responsibility, and it deeply affected other people’s lives. Now that I am a parent and a physician, I can more fully appreciate my father’s dedication to the profession and the profound impact he had on our community. Dad, Happy Father’s Day. I’m looking forward to hearing more stories (and I promise not to buy you any ties).
Share your favorite "Dad joke" or story in the comments.
Melissa Schiffman, MD is a community-based primary care physician who practices in Suburban Philadelphia. She enjoys books, birds, gardens, and word nerdery. Her favorite medical term is "borborygmi." Find her on Twitter at: @MSchiffmanMD. Dr. Schiffman is a 2022–2023 Doximity Op-Med Fellow. Dr. Philip Schiffman is her father.
Illustration by April Brust