Rana Bitar is The Author of The Week

By Rana Bitar, MD, MFA

The Long Tale Of Tears And Smiles

I started documenting my patients’ stories some twenty-five years ago, I did it to remember them, each for their unique character and courage. Throughout my career, I have seen so many patients; some of them resonated in my consciousness for one reason or another, perhaps because they reminded me of something from my past, or changed my view on something, or helped me understand myself or other people better.

Somehow, it did not feel right to let go of some of the stories that altered me. On loose-leaf papers, I wrote those stories, each titled by each patient’s real name. Here and there, I would read them to remind myself of life’s fragility and preciousness.

During one of my family’s Christmas gatherings, while sitting around the dinner table at my house, one of my nieces asked me what it was like to care for cancer patients. I know! Not the best Christmas dinner conversation to have. There were no simple words on my tongue to answer her inquiry; the answer was complicated and involved.

Up until then, I had not shared my patients’ stories with anyone; but I guess good food and plenty of wine loosened my inhibitions. From a few loose-leaf papers in my drawer, I read to my family members—two sisters and their husbands, three nieces, two nephews, and my husband and children—the first three stories I had written during my fellowship.

As I finished reading, I froze in place, head down, eyes fixed on the paper, waiting to hear a reaction. I did not hear a thing. My usually bustling, noisy family was silent. I looked up; they were staring at me with a kind of profound realization that I could not name. It was as if my patients had entered the room.

My brother-in-law Samer broke the silence with his boasting voice. “My God!” he said. “Look how they are looking at you, Rana! What have you done?”

What had I done? No, they were not bored; I could see it in their eyes. They were fully absorbed in the echo the words left in the air after they stopped flowing from my mouth. They were taken.

With Samer’s statement, I realized that my patients’ stories have the power to shake souls and impose a certain kind of contemplative silence afterward—the kind that I could not name then and still cannot name now. It is the silence and stillness that comes from the realization that the call to struggle is not exclusive to anyone in particular, that we are all on the list to be possibly called one day to life’s ultimate trial.

I knew then that my patients’ stories—the days they lived and the days they left behind—did not belong only to me. Their stories, and that kind of silence, had to be heard by others, too.

I also came to realize that those stories did not live in their own vacuum. The reason they were important to me was that they left a dent in my soul. I concluded that if I presented my patients without showing how they entered my life and how I entered theirs, how their lives changed mine and, in turn, mine changed theirs—the impact of their stories would be transitory; they wouldn’t stick. I came to understand that the intersection of my journey with those of my patients was the missing thread, that my journey had to be told as a backdrop to theirs.

And thus, it goes without saying that I am grateful to my patients, who kept my feet on the ground and anchored my existence in a base where I could see the world in clear colors.

Rana Bitar is a Syrian-American physician, poet, and writer. She earned her Master’s in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University.

Her memoir, The Long Tale of Tears and Smiles, was published by Global Collective Publishers in August 2021.

She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, A Loaf of Bread (Unsolicited Press, 2019) and the forthcoming Hold Your Breath (Unsolicited Press, 2023).

A Loaf of Bread was a finalist in the “Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition” in 2017 and won an honorable mention in “The 2017 Louis Award” for poetry.

Hold Your Breath is selected by The National Women’s History Museum to be on Exhibit for their Coronavirus Journaling Project.

Her poetry has appeared in many journals including, The Deadly Writers Patrol, DoveTales, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Magnolia Review, El Portal, Pacific REVIEW, Black Coffee Review, The Phoenix, The Dewdrop, The International Human Rights Art Festival, The Charleston Anvil, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Sextant Review, The Nonconformist Magazine, and Seeing Things: Anthology of Poetry.

Her translation of Arabic poetry appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, The Nonconformist, Illuminations, and AGNI

Her essays have been published in The Pharos Journal, MedPage Today, and Pink Panther Magazine.

She lives in upstate NY, where she practices hematology and oncology.

Find more on: http://www.ranabitar.com/