Blessings and Sudden Intimacies: Musings of a Pediatric Intensivist, a 2016 memoir by Greg Stidham, MD, begins with a “sudden intimacy,” an encounter with a parent whose son has just died. The boy’s mother, after asking Dr. Stidham's permission, takes hold of and strokes his beard, an emblem of his sense of self.
It's that kind of startling detail, one remembered and deeply felt, that stands out in this medical memoir. In many ways, the author followed the normal trajectory of a clinician's path: After growing up in Cleveland, and excelling in school, Dr. Stidham attended Notre Dame and the Medical College of Ohio. In the 1970s, he was a fellow at Johns Hopkins, which had one of five Pediatric Critical Care training programs in the country. What starts to emerge in the narrative is Dr. Stidham's heightened sense of purpose: He went on to establish a pediatric palliative care program, the first in the region, at LeBonheur Children’s Medical Center hospital in Memphis, where he spent twenty-eight years of his career.
Encounters with critically ill and dying children and their parents present the poignant “sudden intimacies” of the book. The “blessings” of the title refer to the young patients, families and healthcare personnel who touch him. But they are also more broadly defined, as when Dr. Stidham writes about his early career, that “without that training and the opportunity to gain [pediatric critical care] expertise I would not have had the adventures that blessed the rest of my life.” The book is just as much about his personal as his professional life, and he says the two are “inextricably intertwined.” This is reflected in the structure of the book, which moves around in time and ranges wide geographically. We are taken on hiking trips to Colorado, camping trips in Arkansas, to Nicaragua where he helped set up a pediatric cardiac surgery program, and to Kingston, Ontario where he moved late in his career.
Dr. Stidham frankly relates his own marital and health problems, numerous enough to raise the question of how much his personal life suffered from the professional toll of long hours, nights on-call, and the emotional strain of dealing with dying children and their families, a potential conflict he doesn’t address directly. Instead he conveys his belief that life is extraordinary, and that he has done unusual and extraordinary things with his. He maintains an optimistic world view, a mindset that gives him the empathy and strength needed to sustain a long medical career.
Blessings and Sudden Intimacies makes you think about what you’ve done with your life, yet somehow Dr. Stidham leaves you feeling that whatever you’ve done, it’s enough. He writes with disarming charm: “Every life is rich in its own unique way, and deserves commemoration. Perhaps it is, in part, for those others that I write, for their rich, but otherwise uncommemorated lives.” He certainly conveys the richness of his own.—Priscilla Mainardi
PRISCILLA MAINARDI, a registered nurse, attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Rutgers University. Her work appears in numerous journals, most recently The Examined Life Journal and Prick of the Spindle. She teaches English Composition at Rutgers in Newark, New Jersey. Her short story “Pretending Not to Know” appeared in the Spring 2014 Intima. She joined the editorial board of the Intima in 2015.