Portrait of Mrs. Guinelly. 1922, Washington, D.C. area

“How many lives did you save today, Dad?” That is what my kids would ask me when they were young, and I would get home late, missing homework, the family meal, and a game of backyard soccer. Of course, they knew I was a somnologist, and they knew I did not save lives. It was a humiliating question as I had to explain to them my job is to help folks sleep.

Now fast forward ten years.

I saw Maggie, an 89-year old woman in my sleep clinic, who was tired. She had a common medical condition called “Little Old Lady Syndrome.” Of course, there was nothing seriously wrong. But during her visit, Maggie told me her story. Her husband died ten months earlier. They met ice skating. She thought he was the most handsome guy in the ice rink. They were both 21, and for the next 68 years they skated together. He was her husband, her lover, her closest companion, her dance partner, and her camping buddy. As she told me her story, Maggie had a good cry. She had a good laugh. And though Maggie was just as tired when she left my office as when she had come in, I felt good about the visit. I drove home with a sense of fulfillment. I thought I had done something special. I believe I deeply connected with another person. On this day, I felt like a hero.

It just so happened, when I got home, my children greeted me with their usual, “How many lives did you save today, Dad?” Now, after meeting Maggie, I replied differently, “No girls, maybe I didn’t save a life today, but I did see Maggie. I heard her love story. I heard her sorrow story. I know she felt good talking to me. And I felt good listening to her.”

So today, on this occasion, I did save a life. But the life I saved may not have been Maggie’s. On this day, in this instance, I found joy and meaning in medicine and the life I saved was my own. I have worked as a physician for almost 20 years, and I am nearly 50 years old. But every day, I still struggle to get home for dinner. Every day, I find myself praying for cancellations. Every day, I still struggle to see the humanness in a digital medical world.

Why do I do it? The simple truth is, at times, it brings me happiness. And here is a prayer for you. That on some days, in some encounters, perhaps this one, may you open your heart and feel joy and meaning in life. I do not know if reading this book will help you sleep and live better. I hope it does. But at least it brings us together.