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The Game: A Miami Parable, in Slo-Mo
Hanging Out a Shingle on Skid Row
Under the Bridge
The Night Elvis Died
Men in Suits
Pennies from Heaven
HMOs and Other BS
Aliens in America
Winds of Change
I started writing this book in a hotel room in San Juan, Puerto Rico, six years ago. I had just finished giving a lecture entitled "A Physician's Responsibility to the Poor" at an annual medical-student convention. That lecture had opened up some old, painful memories and sent me back to files I had not read in a long while. Over the years, I had kept cryptic notes of my journey into the world of medicine and the sick, the homeless and the poor, the world of politics, HMOs, and other horrors. I wanted to write in a language that would reach the students. I wanted to convey my sense of mission. I wanted to tell them about passion. I wanted to tell them about the things I had learned, the things they would never learn in the lab. I wanted to tell about the joy I found in my profession, particularly when it involved my patients.
I'm a hepatologist and gastroenterologist by formal training. But I have never had a liver or a colon walk into my office alone. They always came attached to a person. That person had a family, friends, a history, dreams. As physicians, I told the students, we treat people, not organs or diseases.
So, in the early summer of 1993, in a hotel room overlooking the Caribbean, I began to write my story. My friend Raul Mateu convinced me this was a story that went beyond medicine. He encouraged me to reconstruct my experiences, to pull back the lens and view the larger landscape of my work. So I wrote this book, with my friend Liz Balmaseda, about my years working with Miami's poor and homeless.
As do many of my most vivid memories, this story contains many heartaches. But I believe it is mostly a story of hope, of helping others, of what can be achieved if only we follow our hearts. This book is about the homeless and the sick, and about battling the systems that put them through hell.
When I took the Hippocratic oath, in June 1984, I vowed to protect people against disease, to protect human life, to do everything possible in the name of healing. If that means I have to break rules, so be it. The health of my patient comes first.
As a young doctor, I was inspired beyond my wildest dreams to build a clinic for the homeless, another for undocumented immigrants, and to establish a few other provisional facilities for the poor. In the process, I learned that the beauty of America is this simple: if we find it wrong, we can make it right.
I was born in this country by chance, in the emergency room of Jackson Memorial Hospital, where I would begin my medical internship twenty-eight years later. My mother, almost seven months pregnant, was visiting from Havana that day in 1956. She had come for my grand-father's birthday party -- not mine -- but began having contractions the night before the party, and hurried to the emergency room.
The intern who treated her told her she was in false labor.
"Don't worry, lady, that's all it is," the intern's supervising resident confidently repeated.
"Hurts like hell for false contractions," my mother replied.
The resident and intern walked away, as if their business had been completed. The resident gave a wink to a passing nurse and remarked:
"HLF. Hysterical Latin female."
"Idiota!" my mother whispered.
Less than three hours later, I was born on a gurney in the ER. Amid the chaos that decades later would mark my life as a doctor training in a public hospital, I had woken up in America. Within two weeks I was back in Cuba.
Little did I know I was simply continuing a long tradition in a family of international travelers. It was the British battles against Oliver Cromwell that first brought my ancestors to America. The Civil War destroyed their farm in Georgia. The Spanish-American War took my great-grandfather to Cuba. The Castro revolution brought us back to Miami.
In Cuba we were not a family of means. In fact, my father would say we were one of the few Cuban families who lost nothing to the Castro regime.
"Why?" I'd ask.
"Because we had nothing," he would say.
Although I can trace the turning points of my family history by world-impacting events, my life has been defined by the little things, memories of the sixties and seventies, of campus life at the University of Florida. I'm a Cuban-Irish-American guy genetically predisposed to travel between tragedy and conspiracy -- and hit every good party along the way.
This book will take you from a high school football game to the political games of Washington, from the universe of the sick to the recesses of homelessness, from the death of a loved one to the life of a homeless child who offers a prophetic message.
Just imagine how different it would be if we judged a little less and listened a little more, if each of us did something, anything, that could help someone else. I hope my story moves you to action, to extend your hand and help a person in need, to right the wrongs. Each of us has the power to change this world.
P.J. Greer Jr.
Copyright © 1999 by Pedro José Greer Jr.