Published December 19th in the Chicago Sun Times

            Lydia Overton was my best friend.  She was the person I called whenever something good happened, when something bad happened, whenever I was scared or lonely.  She was not a sentimental sort; she didn’t utter meaningless platitudes.  She wasn’t famous or educated.  She was nearly deaf and utterly self-reliant.  She told the truth without any sugarcoating.  She was my mother. 

 

            When I reached my forties, my seemingly perfect life fell apart.  I went through a lengthy divorce complicated by a brain aneurysm.  Several close friends became ill and died.  My daughter had a horrific accident on Rollerblades and my widowed mom broke her neck while golfing.  I tried dating with markedly disastrous results.  And yet Mom still managed to provide wise counsel despite her own challenges.  As a result of her advice, a large part of my recovery involved writing a memoir that humorously examined the sad and silly and profound ways in which middle age had caught me unawares, but ultimately helped me grow up.

 

            My mother’s recovery from the surgery for her broken neck was complicated by something called postoperative delirium.  We came to understand it as a sign of underlying dementia. As her mind faded, I confided in her less and less.  I finished my memoir, Good in a Crisis, four months before Mom passed.  Ironically, she never would have approved of my saucy book.  And yet I felt her hand in it — a spiritual complicity of sorts.  The book was published on Valentine’s Day —Mom’s birthday — 18 months later and will be released in paperback shortly after New Year’s. 

 

            My mother was 93 when she died.  Though prepared for her death, I was shocked at the extent and duration of my grief.  It surprised me to feel like an orphan at my age.  Her end-of-life care, as well as the care of the elderly I see in my job as a physician, makes me worry, both in a humanitarian and an economic sense.   In the three years since her death, end-of-life has become the focus of my research and writing.  A new book, Muscles of Empathy, has emerged in large part due to my mother’s influence and experience.  I feel certain she would approve of this book, if not the last one.  But writing both books helped me overcome different types of pain, and I have her to thank for that.

 

            As the holidays approach, I think of my parents frequently.  I remember my mother’s mincemeat pie, my father’s brandy ice, our tradition of reading the Christmas letters out loud.  Our family has grown larger as my sisters become grandparents; my older daughter is now engaged.  As difficult as it is to have Christmas without Mom around, I cherish the memories of holidays past.  It occurs to me that I now have the same relationship with my daughters — friend, confidante and advisor — that my mother and I once shared.  And I hope that through my memoir and our chats, my daughters will see that it’s possible to overcome adversity. “Count your blessings,” Mom used to say, before I knew what that meant.  Now I count her among them.

 

Divorced on Valentine’s Day

From The Chicago Tribune Online, January 28, 2014

Coping With Valentine’s Day Without a Valentine
Jen Weigel

If you are worried about being dateless on Valentine’s Day, you’re not alone.
“Over 50 percent of adult Americans are single,” said Margaret Overton, author of “Good in a Crisis,” a memoir about the ups and downs of ending her 20-year marriage. “To get through Valentine’s Day right after my divorce, I’d squeeze my eyes shut, cover my ears, and hum really loud to myself — and in a couple of days, it would be over.”

Overton, 55, whose book was released in paperback this month, writes honestly about the challenges of divorcing her cheating spouse, overcoming a brain aneurysm, and raising her two daughters. And despite her busy schedule working long hours as an anesthesiologist, she even tried Match.com

“I think there’s this sense where there are so many people on it, that people can’t actually make a commitment,” she said. “Somebody better is always just around the corner. It’s counter productive.”

Now eight years after her divorce was finalized, a still single yet not looking Overton feels more grounded than ever, and is “open” to finding a relationship.

“I think because divorce happens so frequently, there’s this tendency to minimize how painful it is and how long it takes to recover from it,” she said. “But it’s really a difficult thing that goes on for a long time. You have to give yourself some room for recovery. If I find someone, that’s great, but I’ve let it go.”

Here are Overton’s tips for those who are grieving a divorce or the end of a relationship this Valentine’s Day:

Don’t rush the grieving process.
“When I first got divorced, someone told me that for every year that you’re married, expect six months of recovery, and I thought ‘I was married 20 years, it’s not going to take me 10 years to get over this! That’s ridiculous!’ But it was. We split up 12 years ago, but it was really 10 years before I felt good and felt like myself again.”

Don’t use a space filler.
“Many people are looking for space fillers to fill up the holes in their lives and that’s really unfair to the people they’ve chosen for that role. I fell into that trap myself. That’s why I don’t want to date anybody who is recently divorced or recently widowed. You have to be really careful in that situation.”

Get a therapist.
“I think it’s really good to have a therapist if you can afford it. If you can’t, then line up your sane friends and be sure not tell your story to anyone and everybody who will listen. When peoples’ eyes cross when you’re talking to them, you know you’re going too far.”

Embrace healthy habits.
“I think that you have to take stock of what’s healthy and good in your life and do those things repeatedly. For example, you have to exercise. You have to take care of yourself. Having good life habits will help you get through those difficult times and help you not come out the other side a complete wreck. And while lots of people might want to reach for that glass of wine when they’re going a lonely period, as crazy as that sounds, it really does help to not drink a lot when you’re going through this.”

Forgive at a pace that works for you.
“You don’t want to be a prisoner of your own anger. The process is different for everybody and some people are just more forgiving than others. Some people, by nature, can let go of things and move on and some people hold on to a grudge because that’s their personality and they have a harder time. I was pretty angry for a long time but I’m not anymore and it feels great.”

Know that things will get better.
“I was in a store one day and this woman came up to me and said ‘Do you know why divorce is so expensive?’ and I said, ‘No, why?’ and she said, ‘Because it’s worth it!’ And I didn’t even know her. I know now that getting divorced was the right choice. When your marriage is wrong and you’re unhappy then divorce is the right thing to do and you will get through it and you will wind up in a better place in the long run. I’m in a much better place now than I ever was before and I’m grateful for that.”

Keep believing.
“I do still believe in love. I even set my older daughter up with someone…From the moment they set eyes on each other, it was ‘boom!’ It’s so much fun to see, and now they’re getting married in October. So yes, love is out there and I’m a believer.”

Jweigel@tribune.com
Twitter: @jenweigel

Outraged, angry, upset, and then some…

Imagine my dismay when I received a notice from Adventist Health Partners that my long-time (think twenty-five years) physician was “retiring” from practice, and I should make an appointment with some Jeff person I’d never met. I’ve been Margaret Pfister’s patient since I moved to the suburbs in the late eighties, but we actually met when I was a med student at Northwestern and she was the chief resident in Obstetrics and Gynecology. My daughters have been her patients for over a decade as well. I knew that if Margaret were retiring, she would have told us personally.

I could tell by the clumsy wording of the letter that someone (an administrator, perhaps?) thought that Margaret’s patients could simply be co-opted into another practice. But it doesn’t work that way. Women choosing an OB/Gyne are among the most educated of all consumers. We have to be. If we are loyal to our hairdressers, imagine how we feel about the person doing our pap smears.

Here’s a big secret in the medical community: gynecologists tend to be the weak link in surgical services. As an anesthesiologist, I’m often asked for referrals and I’m hard pressed to come up with names. I’ve spent twenty-seven years in the operating room and I can easily say there are a handful of gynecologists that I would trust to do surgery on me. Margaret happens to be one of them. So I set about try to find out what the heck was going on.

First I contacted the office.  Pam, Margaret’s long-time receptionist, told me to contact Margaret directly.  So I did.

The long and the short of it is this: Margaret sold her practice to Adventist Health Partners two years ago in October, with the understanding that she would renew her contract after two years.  Only AHP didn’t renew it.  There was a thirty mile restrictive covenant.  She was not allowed to discuss anything with her patients.  She’s out of a job in the Chicago area.  She has practiced at Hinsdale Hospital for over thirty years.  Her patients are expected to simply start seeing some guy who occupies the office that Margaret vacated.

Seriously?

I realize there are usually at least two sides to every story, so I did some investigating.  I contacted a friend who is high up in the nursing administration at Hinsdale.  She was surprised, knew nothing about it, and told me that many of her nurse friends are patients of Margaret’s.  I contacted a friend who is a physician on staff at HInsdale.  He said that the strong-arm tactics of AHP are legendary.  He used the word “evil”.

So I decided to do my part for Margaret by writing a letter to the President and CEO of Hinsdale Hospital and to the CEO of Adventist Health Partners in support of Margaret Pfister, MD.  I am appalled at their treatment of her, and at the way they have treated her patients.

“Both my parents had surgery at Hinsdale Hospital. I even had surgery at Hinsdale years ago. My sister was a patient just last year. My daughter was a candy striper a long time ago. I received my yearly mammogram at the outpatient facility. But I’m done with your hospital. This was a terrible decision—maybe it wasn’t only yours, but the buck stops somewhere. I am laying it at your door.”

Interestingly, my group hired three physicians and a CRNA from Hinsdale in the last few years. I’ve heard business is not thriving. I suspect this type of decision making is taking its toll in other areas as well.