Graduation

The end of our time in Pittsburgh was filled with emotion. I looked forward to being closer to family, but I dreaded having to start anew in another unfamiliar city. I wasn’t sure what I was going to be doing when I got to Albany. I hadn’t found a job yet, doing a search long distance proved fruitless.  As a result, like my move to Pittsburgh four years earlier, I was relocating without anything certain. Gary, on the other hand, knew exactly what he would be doing, but it was daunting. Internship and residency, more tests of his knowledge, skills and endurance awaited. We were also saying good-bye to close friends who were scattering far and wide, each going to different programs.  It was bittersweet.

It was into this emotional stew that our families arrived for graduation. My parents flew in and were staying in dorm rooms on the University of Pittsburgh campus, just a few blocks from our apartment. Gary’s parents, sisters and brother drove from Queens in his Dad’s Cadillac. They stayed at a hotel. Planning for our families to be together was stressful. Everyone got along fine, but we were still new at this. Our families’ styles were so different. Gary’s family would enjoy a tour of the medical school, with extended stops in the pathology and anatomy labs to look at specimens. Not so much for my parents – a tour of the med school would be fine, but they’d prefer to skip the labs (or maybe it was just me that didn’t want to go to the labs!). They would be more inclined to visit a museum or take a walk in Schenley Park.

Meals were another thing. Gary’s parents didn’t require kosher food, but there were limited options. It was important to have fish (not shellfish) available. My parents liked fish, so that wasn’t a problem. The question was where to go to get it, Pittsburgh wasn’t famous for seafood. Gary and I, living on a tight budget, didn’t go to the fancier restaurants either. My perception was that the Baksts liked finer things (note the aforementioned Cadillac). Gary had told me years before that his folks didn’t go out to eat often and that his mom liked a restaurant that had white tablecloths. Celebrating Gary’s graduation was a big deal. I wanted the dinner to be perfect. Not too much pressure!

After asking around, I made a reservation at the Fox Chapel Yacht Club. After all my worry, it went fine. At least I think it did. I have no memories of the meal itself. So, I am assuming if something horrible happened, I would remember! I do have some photos, showing us smiling, which may, or may not, support my assumption.

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Gary and his sibs in their traditional pose – youngest to oldest (L-R) in front of the yacht club
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Gary and his dad.

We did a mix of things over the two days they were there, showing them around and leaving time to relax. We always loved showing visitors the Cathedral of Learning, a gothic tower at the center of a green space on Pitt’s campus. On the ground floor of the cathedral there were model traditional classrooms from other countries, including Sweden, Israel, Poland, among others. I never got tired of looking at them.

We successfully made it to the morning of graduation. Everyone gathered at our apartment. Gary put on his gown. I asked him to put on the cap so I could take some pictures. He was none too pleased. I think his nerves were a little frayed, he was impatient to leave and he was taking his stress out on me. Rochelle interjected, asking him to cooperate, after all he would want pictures. He did, but he wasn’t happy.

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See? The photo he begrudgingly posed for.

Then he left. We would meet up with him after the graduation.

I led our group to the Carnegie Music Hall, so many things in Pittsburgh bear the Carnegie name, where the graduation ceremony was held. It was a gray, rainy day, but the Hall was only a few blocks from our apartment.

We entered the grand foyer of the hall, with its marble floors and ornate columns, looking appropriately majestic for the occasion. We saw all the graduates gathered on one side, in their black robes and green hoods, arranged for a group photo. We stood for a minute, scanning the group, finally spotting Gary in the first row. I waved and smiled. He looked happier, more relaxed.

We went up to the balcony to take our seats. My parents were on my right, David sat to my left. I looked through the program. In front of Gary’s name there were two symbols; an asterisk indicating that he was Cum Laude, and a small cross which meant that he was admitted to the medical honor society (Alpha Omega Alpha). I proudly pointed out the honors to everyone. Not many of his classmates had achieved either honor, much less both.

During the ceremony, each time I turned to look at David, he had tears in his eyes. At one point, as he dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief, he whispered, “Who would have thought I would get to see this?” He shook his head in disbelief. “I had nothing when I came here.”

It had been quite a journey for the entire Bakst family.

When We Went to Medical School

Sometimes I slip and say, “when we went to medical school.” Of course, I know that I didn’t go. In fact, when I would meet Gary on campus, we would take a short cut that went through the anatomy lab. I kept my eyes tightly closed, held my breath and he guided me through as quickly as possible. I wasn’t cut out for blood, guts or formaldehyde. But, I still feel like I went through it. Maybe because it was so intense. Maybe because our lives were totally consumed and structured by the demands of Gary’s schedule. Whatever the reason, now and again the phrase still slips out.

When I joined Gary in Pittsburgh, one of the things I was struck by, and people will be pleased to know this, was how seriously Gary and his fellow students took their learning. I don’t know if it is like this in other medical schools, but at Pitt, with a few exceptions, students were committed to learning all of the material. There was concern about grades, too, but the focus was actually on learning. They took their responsibility very seriously. Not only were they studying for a given test, they were trying to retain the knowledge beyond that test. Certainly, this was true for Gary and his circle of friends.

This was a contrast from my experience in graduate school, where my fellow students at Columbia were present and worked hard, but didn’t display that level of commitment, not even close. The med school students saw a connection between what they were learning and the quality of care they would later provide patients. I found it very reassuring.

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These were some of the thick books Gary lugged around.

The first two years of medical school were comprised of traditional classes. Gary lugged huge, thick texts on biochemistry and anatomy and physiology to and from the apartment – sometimes to one of the libraries on campus, more often downstairs to a room in our building. Ruskin Hall, where we lived, had a lounge on the first floor that was good for studying. There was a long wooden table with sturdy chairs and some more comfortable chairs against the walls. It was never terribly crowded, but there were always some people studying there. When he wasn’t in class or lab, that’s where I’d find Gary. It became a routine: every evening around 8:00 I’d bring him a cup of Maxwell House International Suisse Mocha (the instant mix). We’d touch base for a minute or two and then I’d go back up to the apartment, watch t.v. or read and go to sleep. I didn’t know what time Gary came up.

It could be lonely for me. Other than Gary, I didn’t know a soul in Pittsburgh. It took a few months for me to find a job, but even after finding one, it was hard to make friends. I was an outsider at work, being so young, a New Yorker and Jewish (I wrote about that here and here). My colleagues were married, with children and in a different place in their lives. Though it was fine for work, for the most part, I couldn’t make a connection that went beyond a celebratory drink during the holidays.

We did have a circle of friends from Gary’s class, which included some women. I did become friends with one who was in a similar situation, she worked while her husband went to med school. She was a copy editor at a publishing company. But her life took a major turn when she got pregnant and had a baby during the second year of medical school. We remained friendly, and we socialized as couples, but she, understandably, was preoccupied.

I tried some different things to network and branch out. I joined a group called Women in Community Development and edited their newsletter. I enrolled to get my PhD in Public Administration at the University of Pittsburgh and took a few classes, while working full time. I joined a gym near work. None of those efforts led to the kind of connection I wanted. Looking back, I think my loneliness and sadness were more about my general melancholia, not yet treated with medication.

I muddled through, trying to be as supportive of Gary as possible, while simultaneously leaning on him to fulfill all of my emotional needs (perhaps a contradiction in terms). The third year of medical school brought new and different challenges. Gary began rotations in the hospitals, each one exposing him to another specialty. Most med students, early on, made a choice: medicine or surgery. There were many specialties within each of those two branches, but the two areas called upon different skill sets. Surgeons tended to be action-oriented, take-charge, fix-it kind of people. Internal medicine drew problem-solvers, relationship-focused, detail-oriented folks. There was some trash talk between the two groups, with those choosing medicine disparagingly referred to as ‘fleas.’ I don’t recall a pejorative assigned to surgeons, but the general idea was that they wanted to operate first, ask questions later.

Gary chose medicine, not surprisingly. As a result, the medicine rotation loomed large for him. He was determined to ace it. It was the longest rotation, lasting almost three months, taking him to different hospitals with a long stint at the VA. The hours were brutal. Gary would leave the apartment at 6:00 am and get home around 9:00 pm, if not later, and then he would read/study. I don’t recall him having weekends off, and if he did, they were spent studying. There was just so much to learn.

One night, tired of eating dinner alone and feeling resentful, I asked Gary if he had to keep these hours. “Can’t you cut back a bit? Does everyone do what you’re doing?” Gary carefully explained to me that this was time-limited, the rotation would end. He felt he needed to go all out because it would be important for future choices. If he wanted to get a residency placement of his choosing, the better he did in this rotation, the more options he would have. I didn’t know it then, but this argument would become a recurring theme in the first ten years of our marriage: me questioning whether Gary’s long hours were necessary. This time I told him I understood, and tried to suck it up.

I don’t know how he did it, I barely made it through the ordeal. I have this unfortunate tendency when in a dark period to feel like it will never end. I find it a challenge to see light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately, that isn’t a quality Gary shares – he certainly wasn’t seeing much light, literally or figuratively. It was the fall, he left in the dark and came home in the dark and spent most of his time in the dim fluorescent light of hospital wards.

Finally, the rotation came to an end. I arrived home from work and found Gary already in the apartment. This was a major step forward, he was never home before me. I hung up my coat, went to the bathroom and came out to greet him. He was standing by the kitchen sink, taking a glass of water, but looking quizzically at me.

“What?” I asked, feeling like I must’ve missed something. Turned out I had.

“Did you go into the bathroom?”

“Yes, why?”

“Go in there again.”

I was perplexed but I did as he asked. I looked up and taped to the mirror was a piece of paper. I don’t know how I missed it the first time, though I do try to avoid mirrors. I recognized the format – it was the end of rotation evaluation. Gary got honors in Medicine! I screeched and jumped up and down. I threw my arms around him. We danced around the apartment. I later learned that Gary was one of only four students (out of 140) to achieve that distinction. Gary was well on his way to leaving his ‘imposter syndrome’ behind, and hopefully getting a choice residency when he graduated.

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The form that was taped to the mirror.

Medical School Begins

One challenge in writing this blog is that it is disjointed. I’ve jumped around quite a bit, while still trying to follow some threads in a coherent way. I appreciate you readers taking the journey with me. Hopefully it hasn’t been too confusing!

In preparing to write this piece, I reread a bunch of posts to remind myself what I had covered. I don’t want to repeat myself, but I also want to make sure that each essay stands on its own. Please feel free to comment or message me if you have questions or if I’ve lost you! I welcome the feedback.

I’ve written about the ‘tense conversation’ (read here) Gary and I had about his applying to medical school. With all that went into the application, and all the pressure he felt, medical school presented quite a test – to Gary, to me and to our relationship.

Gary sailed through high school with minimal effort. He needed only a bit more energy to get through college. He began medical school not knowing how smart he was and without well-developed study skills. I think to some degree he had ‘impostor syndrome,’ he didn’t know if he belonged or deserved to be there.

Plus, he had his father’s hopes and dreams (and money for tuition!) riding on his success. Not too much pressure! Fortunately, Gary rose to the challenge. He not only met it, but he excelled. He set a brutal work pace for himself to achieve it.

As I wrote previously, Gary and I drove a U-Haul from Queens to Pittsburgh in August of 1982. We parked the truck in front of Ruskin Hall in Oakland, the neighborhood which the University of Pittsburgh occupies, and got the keys and went up to the apartment.

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Ruskin Hall – photo from University of Pittsburgh website

Gary and his parents had traveled to Pittsburgh earlier in the summer to select the apartment, this was my first time seeing it. I was pleasantly surprised, and a bit overwhelmed. Tears welled as I looked at the high ceilings, huge windows, hardwood floors and spacious bedroom and living room. It reminded me of an upper west side of New York City pre-war apartment and I hadn’t expected something so nice. I couldn’t believe this was going to be Gary and my first home together. I wasn’t actually moving in with him at that point, I was going to join him later, but I knew it would be ours. I wanted to get at least six months in my new job before moving on, and Gary needed to get acclimated to medical school on his own. I knew I would be joining him in the not too distant future and I had no expectation that we would have such a nice apartment.

We moved the furniture in, which wasn’t much, but he had the essentials. We went to the nearest mall and bought some other items, including a phone. One of those new-fangled portable models that we plugged in and didn’t think anything more of it. After finding a grocery store and stocking the pantry and refrigerator with things he could easily prepare, I took a cab to the airport and flew home. I was sad to say goodbye, but fortunately airfare from New York to Pittsburgh was $29, thanks to PeopleExpress and US Air. We planned that I would visit once a month. We also planned to talk on the phone every few days and set our first phone date for  Tuesday evening at 8:00, two days from then.

I went back to work on that Monday and pined for Gary. I couldn’t wait to talk to him. The appointed hour couldn’t come fast enough. At 7:59 on Tuesday evening, I picked up the phone in Canarsie and dialed Gary’s new number in Pittsburgh. The phone rang and rang. I counted 20 times. I hung up and dialed again and let it ring another 20 times. I was worried (was something wrong? Was he sick?). I was angry (how could he forget that we had a phone date?) I was confused (what should I do? There was no one to call to check on him). I kept trying. Eventually, he answered and he had a story to tell.

Gary was in the apartment, waiting for my call, keeping himself busy by refinishing a wooden desk that he had brought from home. He heard a chirping sound. Perplexed, he walked around the apartment trying to locate the source. It was a persistent, annoying sound and he wanted it to stop. He determined that it was coming from the smoke detector (also a new-fangled device in those days). He took the step ladder and tried to reach it to disconnect it (the downside of those high ceilings). No luck. The sound stopped, but then resumed. He got the broom and took the stick and pummeled the smoke detector. It fell to the floor, but the sound began again. It finally dawned on him that it wasn’t the smoke detector, but rather it was the new telephone. In the two days that he had been in the apartment it hadn’t rung once, so he had no idea what it sounded like. We were all used to the sound of the classic bell that our phones at home used when they jingled. This phone sounded more like a bird tweeting in a high pitched insistent tone. Meanwhile, back in Canarsie, I was in a panic. I was ready to be furious, until I heard his story. Then we started laughing. Though he had mangled the smoke detector, he was fine and would have the sound of that phone chirping imprinted on his brain forever.

It was a minor but amusing misunderstanding. We managed to communicate more successfully through that first semester. Gary wrote me a letter every day (I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he writes the kids an email every day). I was a faithful correspondent, too. And, we had no further problems with the telephone. That isn’t to say that we didn’t have our struggles during his four years of med school, but more on that next time.