Dr. Jerald Winakur is the doctor we all wish we had, if not for ourselves, for our elders. His book, Memory Lessons: A Doctor's Story, suffers from a bland cover and a deceivingly simplified subtitle, but don't let that fool you. This doctor is a writer. He is a story teller. He is a gift to his patients and to us, the reader.
In Memory Lessons, Winakur tells stories of his humble beginnings, the son of an immigrant pawn shop owner. He intertwines stories of his youth growing up in a tough neighborhood with a hardworking family that just wanted to make ends meet, with his medical education and eventual career as a gerontologist.
Winakur tells of his youthful temper and his complicated relationship with his father. He tells of his first years in medical school, and how appalled he was at how people were treated as cases and numbers, rather than individuals. He rails against our current medical system that encourages this treatment even more than it did when he was a young resident.
Wimakur's father was an artist at heart, but ran a pawn shop to make a living. He lost his business in a riot that gutted the whole neighborhood, including his shop. He never fully recovered from that loss, mentally or emotionally. For awhile, the elder Winakur developed his dream of being an artist. Self-taught, he studied the great artists, and discovered his own technique. He painted as he'd always dreamed he would. But then he quit. Depression took him over.
One thing the elder and younger Winakur had in common was a love of bird watching. This hobby brought them together at times, when otherwise they would have barely talked. Eventually, Winakur's dad developed the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Winakur's mother's health suffered terribly as she tried to care for her husband, even though the marriage had been quite troubled, much of the time.
While Winakur, a geriatrician, coped on a daily basis with the woes of the aging boomers and the very old, coping with his father's Alzheimer's was a whole new experience. While Winakur's practice has been around long enough for him to treat more than one generation of some families, treating his father was the most difficult challenge he'd ever faced.
I've spoken to groups of professionals often, and they tell me this same thing. It's different when it's your own mother or father. Winakur's writing highlights this fact vividly. He is so frank about his own limitations as a human being, as a son, and as a doctor, that you can't help but love him. His humility makes you want to meet him. His gift for storytelling makes the book as riveting as a novel.
However, this is not a novel. It is very, very real. This is a man who lost his father to Alzheimer's disease. This is a man who had to make a decision about his father's future that made him stand up or shut up, when it came to the values he places on the quality of human life. This is a man who walks his talk.
Find Memory Lessons, by Jerald Winakur, online and in bookstores.
Published On: February 17, 2009