Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Burning My Lab Coats

     Is it sacrilege to do such a thing?
     In some cultures, physicians and priests are the same, made of one fabric.  They serve as intermediaries between human beings and the gods.  They are sought after, and projected onto, and made into agents of transformation.
     Throwing my lab coats into a blaze suggests destruction of the very things they stand for:  belief in a higher good, loyalty to mankind, faith in the healing arts, identity within our shared social structure,  spiritual connections among people.
     The lab coats are effigies;  the bonfire is a funeral pyre.
     What else am I supposed to do with these much-used, much-washed garments, stained with Pentel ink that bled into the pockets whenever I replaced a pen in a hurry, without its cap, and with tawny halos of Betadine near the hem, and blood on the lapels, from being right up next to an incision that spattered.  Some evidence can't be bleached out.  Some wounds smart, long after their surfaces have healed.
     I thought of snipping off the buttons for my button box, and using the fabric to cover, say, potted plants on the back porch, when frost is in the forecast.  The cloth is just the right thickness, not as coarse as canvas, nor as smothering as tarps, nor as thin as old bedsheets.  But then I'd have to see the coats, intermittently, rather than be allowed to forget what they stood for, and I'd be reminded of an experience that has begun to feel, against my better logic, like a failure.  My failure, or the failure of a era, or of an attitude, or a system.
     And there's the question of my name, embroidered in bold, black, readable Verdana font just above the breast pocket:  Ona Colasante MD.  Seeing that name, written in that way, would be like looking at an epitaph.
     Before the heat of summer, then, I tear up old papers--billing sheets, as it turns out, from my defunct office.  I crumple them and form a pyramid in the fire pit, which has been used many times for oysters, potatoes, marshmallows.  Then I drape over it heaps of Spanish moss, like hair, because it pops and crackles in the flames, and after that, last year's raspberry canes, which are brittle and needed to be pruned anyway.   I gather twigs for the next layer, cleaning up the yard after last week's windstorm, and then I arrange three rotted logs on top.  A few beetles run, as though lost, in circles around the logs before vanishing into the grass.
     As dusk settles into darkness, I set a match to the whole thing:  paper, moss, brush, wood.  It sizzles and flashes, high and bright.  The glow makes my skin look orange.
     Then, careful not to smother the flames, I place a crumpled-up lab coat at the edge of the pit and watch it catch fire, inch by inch, unfurling like a leaf, then turning in on itself the way a human body might, in a crematory, before disappearing into ash.  Then another coat, and another, and another.
     I can tell the fire doesn't like this fabric--which perhaps was treated with a flame-retardant--because it doesn't bite and swallow my lab coats easily.  There are times when, like a witch, I have to nudge a garment with a broomstick toward the center, where the flames are hottest.  I force each garment to accept its death.
     I think it takes a long time for eight lab coats to burn.  The smoke heads for the treetops, and then toward the moon.  In the stillness I empty my mind of thoughts, like a hermit or a novice, but the tune from that old song, paraphrasing Ecclesiastes, keeps finding a way in.
    To every season, turn, turn, turn.


  1. I ain't burning mine...even if it threadbare, stained
    and well worn...it is still magical on me...



    U NO WHO!!!!!!

  2. Dear Ona,

    I'm not sure how to say what I want to say, but your use of the word "failure" in this post inspired me to write.

    First I want to thank you for your blog and the glimpse it gives of the passage you're in the midst of. Being one of the many whose life you touched during your years of practice, I read it regularly and am glad to be updated on your progress creating and adjusting to your new life.

    My wife and I had looked long and hard for a family doc before we found you. The quality of the attention and care you gave us was far beyond anything we could have hopped to find. As I'm sure you know, there are people calling themselves doctors out there who spend a scant few minutes with a patient and can do a "check up" without even touching you.... hmmmm? From our experience you did an amazing job of embodying that "real doctor" depicted by Norman Rockwell so long ago. Even though you haven't chosen to walk that path to the end and die with a stethoscope in your hand, you sure gave it your best shot and you blessed a lot of people along the way. Besides, Docs in Rockwell's day didn't have to deal with greedy insurance companies and the FBI.

    I know things don't always turn out as we envision them, and as my friend Gamble used to remind me "Life is what happens to us while we're making other plans" - but I'm guessing that whatever you decide to focus your creative attention on, can only benefit from the kind of person you are. The depth of your love and care and desire to be truly helpful will surely lead you in a direction where you will continue to make a difference in peoples lives.

    I also know from experience that while in the midst of grieving, it is not a great time to evaluate or reevaluate one's accomplishments in life. That story never seems to turn out well, and oddly it never feels like distorted perception brought on by the problematic brain chemistry of loss, but rather like scales have fallen from our eyes and we're seeing ourselves and the world clearly perhaps for the first time. We are such tricky creatures, aren't we?

    Bottom line... just know I am one of many "out there" who feel that for the time you chose to wear that lab coat, you were one of the most successful Docs on the planet. And know that we love and appreciate you and are pulling for you.


    David Beede

  3. Thank you, David, for your beautiful prose and your endorsement of my philosophy of medicine. I am grateful to you (and to all my patients) for your loyalty and your perspicacity. My rejection of medicine as it is currently practiced is political as well as personal. Whatever regrets I feel are tied up with my necessary withdrawal from patient care, and the loss of connections with people who suffer, and celebrate, and live their lives fully, as you do.