infusion room is crowded just before lunch on this late summer
day. An elderly woman in a bright scarf extends her thin, pale
arm as a nurse prepares to insert a needle. A businessman in
a tie finishes his treatment, slips on his suit jacket, and
gathers his briefcase. A young woman sits reading by the window,
elbow resting on the padded arm of her chair as pale amber fluid
spirals down the plastic tubing into her vein.
the fourth row sits Jamie Weisman 98M, physician, author,
andat the momentpatient.
is fiddling with the digital commands on her IV drip. This
is a new machine and Im not exactly sure how it works,
she says. Im going to speed it up here in a minute.
is Weismans day off, but already this morning she has
presented one of her own patientsa 65-year-old woman on
dialysis with chronic leg ulcersat Emory Universitys
dermatology grand rounds. Area doctors can present puzzling
or difficult cases in front of professors and residents, brainstorming
with colleagues about the condition in hopes of finding more
effective treatment options.
a measure of how much pain shes in, that she came all
the way here from Austell early this morning, Weisman
it is a measure of Weismans devotion as a doctor that,
on the day of her own medical treatment, she tried to find a
better way to ease her patients pain.
who was born with a rare immune disorder, knows illness and
fear and uncertainty. She has been confined to bed or hospitalized
with repeated infections that ran unchecked through her body
due to her weakened immune systemshingles, ear infections,
tear duct blockages, sepsis, cellulitis, esophageal herpes.
She had repeated, severe salivary gland infections until both
parotid glands were removed in separate, high-risk operations.
She has had five bone marrow biopsies and has been repeatedly
warned by doctor after doctor that she might have, or soon would
develop, lymphoma or other forms of cancer. And she has lain
in a hospital bed in so much pain she begged to be allowed to
probably think about my own mortality more than other people
do, says Weisman, whose condition is kept under control
by monthly infusions of antibodiesproteins in the blood
designed to protect the body from invadersand shots of
interferon, which helps to kill viruses and cancer cells.
Weisman is the daughter of a doctorAtlanta cardiologist
Evan Weismanshe earned her bachelors degree in English
literature from Brown University and was planning to pursue
a writing career until her illness was diagnosed. With the realization
that she would need to navigate the health care system and pay
for years of expensive treatments, going to medical school seemed
the best way to make lemonade out of lemons, she
Weisman started attending Emorys School of Medicine, she
found that her time in the infusion room was as much a part
of her medical education as courses in anatomy or physiology.
patients I met shaped the doctor I would become, Weisman
says. I know illness from the inside out. I know not just
what goes wrong in the body . . . but also what this means for
the human being who happens to inhabit [that] given body.
her fourth year of medical school, Weisman decided to keep a
written record of her experiences, which ultimately became the
book, As I Live and Breathe: Notes of a Patient-Doctor
(North Point Press, 2002).
the book, which has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine,
and won an Elle magazine readers prize, Weisman relates
the frustrations of trying to live a full and busy life while
battling an immune disorder and shares lessons from other patients
she has befriended or treated. Publishers Weekly called it an
elegant, thoughtful memoir . . . particularly good at
conveying the powerlessness of the medical profession over the
unpredictability of illness.
an especially moving chapter, Weisman tells about a disfiguring
mass of scar tissue on the left side of her face caused by repeated
infections of her parotid gland, a large salivary gland near
the ear. By the time Weisman was twenty-five, the lump was the
size of a grapefruit. Children would point and stare and adults
thought she had the mumps or a tumor. Doctors told her that
removing the mass, which surrounded her main facial nerve, was
too risky and that she should learn to live with her deformity.
to Weisman, the ever-present lump meant the disease was winning.
stopped looking in the mirror. I didnt allow anyone to
take my picture. I hid behind a veil of hairno ponytails,
no barrettes. I avoided parties and preferred the company of
dogs to people since, if they noticed my strange face, they
didnt say anything, writes Weisman. I got
used to people keeping their distance.
father, however, refused to give up hope, and asked colleagues
for the name of the best head and neck surgeon in Atlanta. He
was told to see Gerald Gussack, a confident young surgeon at
can get that out, Gussack told Weisman at their first
meeting. In fact, I have to. Youre a beautiful girl.
We need to give you back your face.
writes Weisman, I fell in love with him.
surgery went well, leaving as its only reminder a slightly crooked
smile. Weisman understood then, at a deeply personal level,
the invaluable gift a skilled doctor could bestowthe chance
for a normal life. It confirmed her decision to become a physician.
few years later, when Weisman was in medical school, Gussack
was diagnosed with a rapidly growing brain tumor. His death
shook Weisman, who grieved that she would never be able to repay
the debt she owed him. He was my hero . . . , he had touched
me, exposed the blood and bone of my body and healed me,
she writes. He had saved me in a way that to me was nothing
short of miraculous.
became evident to Weisman, through her writing, the support
of her parents, and her decision to marry and have children,
was that the only cure for dying is living.
in private practice as a dermatologist in Austell, she lives
with her husband, Victor Balaban 99 PhD (left), a photographer
and psychologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
and their two daughters in Sandy Springs, a few doors down from
her parents home.
of us know what the future holds, she says. Ive
been sick enough and vulnerable enough to know in a very visceral
way that you have to cherish every moment. And thats what
I try to do.M.J.L.