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Dr. Michele Harper Shares More Than A Decade Of ER Experience In New Memoir


We've all been reminded in recent months of the extraordinary responsibilities of people in health care - nurses, technicians, attendants and doctors. Dr. Michele Harper has worked for more than a decade in emergency rooms in the South Bronx and Philadelphia and shares some of her experiences in a new book, "The Beauty In Breaking."

MICHELE HARPER: (Reading) I am the doctor whose palms bolster the head of the 20-year-old man with a gunshot wound to his brain. I support the baby as she takes her first breath outside her mother's womb. I hug the wife whose husband is dying from advanced liver disease as she implores the universe to take away his pain. I claim no special powers, nor do I know how to handle death any better than you. What I know is that for 36 hours a week, I reside in the melee that is a hospital emergency room where I am called upon to be salve, antidote and sometime Charon. Most of the time, my job is to keep death at bay. When I am successful, I send the patient back out into the world. When I'm not, I am there as life passes away.

SIMON: Dr. Michele Harper joins us now from Philadelphia. Dr. Harper, thanks so much for being with us.

HARPER: Thank you for having me. It's an honor.

SIMON: Those are such piercing words, and I just have to ask what these past few months have been like for you and so many of your colleagues.

HARPER: Yeah, it's - it is challenging, you know. And, of course, there's everything all the doctors are saying about not having enough equipment, the staffing shortages, the pay cuts - all of those things are true. But there's more also. There's also me in the ER taking care of another health care provider. He is a technician, and he's sick. And while we're talking, he keeps apologizing to me because his phone is blowing up. He says, I'm really sorry, but it's my job. They know I'm sick, but they need me to come back to work. We're all sick, but there aren't enough people to work. And that's why they keep calling.

SIMON: Well, thank you for everything that you and so many people are doing. I want to ask you about some of the vignettes here in this book of patients. There's a patient you call Dominic Thomas who was visibly, I guess, on PCP. Four arresting police officers said that he'd swallowed bags of drugs and said we need you to, doctor, to get the bags out. How did you see your responsibilities to your patient?

HARPER: The police said this is what we saw. He's now under arrest. We want you to examine him and get the drugs out. He refused. And any patient who comes in is allowed to refuse if they're well and competent. So my responsibility and my oath is to respect that. So I didn't, and I explained to the police that I wasn't going to. It was a difficult stance to take because multiple people in the emergency department, other providers, were going against me saying, well, this is just what we do. That part was even more horrifying to me.

So it was not only issues with the police and this expectation that this Black man didn't have sovereignty but that the medical establishment is complicit, and that had to be addressed on all fronts. So, yes, it was important for me there to do my job to help this one man in this one situation. But that's not justice, helping one person at one time. It's the rest as well.

SIMON: I keep thinking of a man you write about named Joshua. I've thought about him because, of course, we're living through a time when so many senior citizens feel especially vulnerable.

HARPER: He just came in with this nagging stomach discomfort. And then my colleague before me had done a CAT scan, and it showed metastatic cancer. But he was comfortable. He was really just elegant. And we had a conversation, and I asked him if he was aware of the diagnosis. He said, well, the other doctor kind of danced around it, but I know and I get it. And he - his wishes were he didn't want to be admitted to the hospital. He wanted to continue to live his life in comfort and enjoy his time with his family. And for me, that was - it was magical because the equanimity he displayed, I mean, if he could do that, take what comes in his life, go with the flow of life without seemingly being rocked but just having gratitude and graciousness the whole time, I mean, I would hope I could do that when I'm not facing a metastatic cancer diagnosis.

SIMON: Dr. Harper, do you think working to heal others has helped to heal you?

HARPER: Definitely. Definitely. Definitely. And when I went into this field, I I didn't anticipate that would happen. I mean, it's cliche. Everyone says that is what happens if we let it. And it's true because with these encounters, I reflect on my experiences, like the ones we've just talked about. And I'm here to do a job and to help people and to be of service. And if I'm going to be triggered in that way, then I have to look at that. And that just means there's something else in myself that I have to heal and work on.

SIMON: And it makes you a better doctor.

HARPER: It makes me a better human.

SIMON: Dr. Michele Harper - her memoir, "The Beauty In Breaking." Thank you so much for being with us, Doctor.

HARPER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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