In Memoriam, Burton Heda, M.D.

Down at the Bay early this morning, the duck congregation was out on the water – buffleheads and Grebes, canvasbacks and ruddy ducks – their many-colored plumage reflecting bright on calm water as they drifted by. The walkers and joggers were out too, equally colorful in magenta shorts and orange headbands, hijabs and burqas. One young woman, in full head-scarf and skirts down to her shoes, greeted me with a bright ‘Good morning’ as she jogged past, going at a good clip even in her full skirts.

Our morning had already been dramatic, with a fire in the hills and a bus careening into a house in the flats, but the peaceable scene of diverse life down by the Bay reassured me; we’ll make it through, I kept thinking, we’ll make it through. It was the diversity of ducks drifting together on placid water, and the Muslim woman jogging on the path that calmed my soul.

I love to mix and match things – colors, cuisines, styles – being by nature a kind of crazy quilter. I do it with fabric and food, and I do it with people. My ideal neighborhood is a mélange of languages and skin colors, and, having grown up unhappy in an all-white suburb of New York City, I find myself bored when surrounded by people who all look like me.

That may be why I had such a good time, in the mid-60s, being an intern in the Emergency Room of Herrick Hospital where people of every color and language eventually found their way through those swishing double doors. My first day there, a Phillipino woman staggered in on the arms of her husband and was attended by a Russian-Jewish doctor, an African-American nurse and a Chinese orderly – with me in the mix. I felt immediately at home.

I was there, having the opportunity of a lifetime to be trained in preparation for a year in India where Herb would teach at a local college and I would be a kind of ‘barefoot doctor’ in the surrounding villages. Our family doctor, Burton Heda, graciously invited me to come to the ER during his shifts where he would show me the basic ‘ropes.’ I would learn from him mostly by watching him work and asking questions about what I observed, but it was not long before the whole staff was helping train me, explaining why they did this or that, showing me what to look out for and even, after awhile, allowing me to assist in small ways. Most important, though, I was learning to keep cool in the face of pain and fear and to not faint at the sight of blood.

“A little blood goes a long way,” Nurse Sara pointed out, wiping gore off the face of a fellow thrown from his motorcycle, and showing me the small nick under his hairline that all that blood was coming from. “Lots of blood vessels in the scalp,” she explained, applying pressure. Like that, I learned.

One evening, while we had a quiet moment in the nurses’ station, a baby was brought in screaming and I watched Dr. Heda go still, calmly pop another jellybean into his mouth and then saunter off to the examining room to see the baby. I was as frantic as the mother, wanting to yell at him to get a move on! When I scolded him afterwards, he smiled and said,

“He was hollering like all get-out, right?” I nodded. “That was the sound of a healthy baby. If he’d been silent, I would have run.”

‘Stay calm until it is time to be busy; do not waste good energy getting emotional,’ was that day’s lesson.

That year in the ER was an invaluable education – at least as significant as the experience of India itself – and taught me just how resilient the human body and spirit can be, how I could rise to the occasion when I had to, and how essential human kindness was in the process of healing.

Burt’s family was like family to us for years, and now both he and Herb are gone. It is the end of an era. Yesterday, I received a package from their daughter containing letters to her parents I’d written from India about my medical adventures – they had kept them!

I’d forgotten I’d even written them.

The early letters were a litany of complaints: I hated the caste system, the oppressive heat; the poverty. The local hospital had cows wandering in the corridors and I felt like a visitor in hell! My attempts to inoculate the servants’ children against rampant tuberculosis didn’t work because we couldn’t get the serum, and yesterday I delivered the baby of a malnourished fourteen year old!

It took months of fuming before I settled down and learned how to breathe. So simple, so hard. I had to let go of my judgments, my privilege and expectations and go with what was right in front of me. It felt like letting a cloak slip quietly off my shoulders, leaving me naked and vulnerable to a different flow of reality, a deeper one than I was used to. My eyes had to let go of their filters, freeing me to see true without bias.

Hard lessons, and they took me most of a year to learn.

What finally woke me up was what happened after the delivery of a servant’s baby during monsoon season. After I had examined the newborn, tied the umbilical cord (with a shoelace!) and delivered the afterbirth, I handed him to his young mother and went out to tell his father the ‘good’ news. A boy! (A daughter, there, might not have been considered good news.)

Next morning I came back to check on mother and child, and found the baby’s body covered in what looked like excrement! Horrified, I told them to wash off the baby right away! The women looked frightened, and shook their heads. The next day, the baby was again covered in goo – this time with a knife lying by his little head as well – and his eyes were outlined in black kohl. I had no idea what they thought they were doing. Again, I took charge and showed them how to wash the baby until every bit of brown was cleansed from his tender skin.

On the third day they finally obeyed me, the ‘mem sahib’, and when I returned the next morning the baby was covered with red welts from mosquito bites! Of course! The crushed mustard seed covering, the traditional protection from the prevalent and dangerous mosquitos had been completely washed off – at my insistence!

In that moment, I grew up, hard!

“…separate perspectives are merely different facets of the same perfect diamond…” writes Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon who ‘died’ and came back from his near-death experience to report that reality was more vast, more dimensioned and more loving than we have been taught.

We live in a many-faceted, many-dimensioned, interconnected, conscious universe, and belong to it all, he reports back. Every one of us, every particle through all time and space is part of the Whole. No matter what it looks like nor how it communicates to every other part, its language is beauty and its message is love.

The material world is just a layer, after all – a beautiful layer, to be sure, but really just a congealed crust of the infinite Whole. Pale in comparison to the Bigger Picture, and without the Whole, it would not even exist.

Nor would we.

Down at the Bay, just as I was leaving, a Great Blue Heron alighted in all its feathered glory, posing itself like a gorgeous miracle, still and gleaming in the morning sunshine.

How lucky I am to be here, I thought.

True for all of us