“THE MOMENT when one’s skin is pierced produces a unique vulnerability that has nothing to do with pain. It is fundamentally unnatural to passively allow this insult to the body, and no matter how many times I’ve had it done to me, I still flinch. It is always when I feel the prick of the needle that the ‘why me?’ thoughts come, as if they were smoke leaking out through the tiny hole in my arm. How did I end up with an aberrant immune system? Which one of my chromosomes misbehaved? Why would one of my cells mess up the intricate process of division, when trillions of other cells in billions of other people manage it just fine, thousands of times every hour? We—my family, my doctors, myself—have no idea where my disorder came from or where it is going. I could develop cancer next year or I could, like my grandfather, die of old age at ninety while eating a Rice Krispies Treat and complaining about the weather. Sometimes when the needle slides into my vein, I am overwhelmed by this uncertainty.”

—Jamie Weisman, As I Live and Breathe.

Emory Clinic’s 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.

In the fourth row sits Jamie Weisman ’98M, physician, author, and—at the moment—patient.

She is fiddling with the digital commands on her IV drip. “This is a new machine and I’m not exactly sure how it works,” she says. “I’m going to speed it up here in a minute.”

This is Weisman’s day off, but already this morning she has presented one of her own patients—a 65-year-old woman on dialysis with chronic leg ulcers—at Emory University’s 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.

“It’s a measure of how much pain she’s in, that she came all the way here from Austell early this morning,” Weisman says.

And it is a measure of Weisman’s devotion as a doctor that, on the day of her own medical treatment, she tried to find a better way to ease her patient’s pain.

Weisman, 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 system—shingles, 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 die.

“I probably think about my own mortality more than other people do,” says Weisman, whose condition is kept under control by monthly infusions of antibodies—proteins in the blood designed to protect the body from invaders—and shots of interferon, which helps to kill viruses and cancer cells.

Although Weisman is the daughter of a doctor—Atlanta cardiologist Evan Weisman—she earned her bachelor’s 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 says.

Once Weisman started attending Emory’s 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.

“The 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.”

During 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).

In 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.”

In 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.

But to Weisman, the ever-present lump meant the disease was winning.

“I stopped looking in the mirror. I didn’t allow anyone to take my picture. I hid behind a veil of hair—no ponytails, no barrettes. I avoided parties and preferred the company of dogs to people since, if they noticed my strange face, they didn’t say anything,” writes Weisman. “I got used to people keeping their distance.”

Her 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 Emory Clinic.

“I can get that out,” Gussack told Weisman at their first meeting. “In fact, I have to. You’re a beautiful girl. We need to give you back your face.”

“Instantly,” writes Weisman, “I fell in love with him.”

The 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 bestow—the chance for a normal life. It confirmed her decision to become a physician.

A 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.”

What 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.”

Now 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.

“None of us know what the future holds,” she says. “I’ve been sick enough and vulnerable enough to know in a very visceral way that you have to cherish every moment. And that’s what I try to do.”—M.J.L.

© 2002 Emory Magazine