“Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start…” 

—Maria from the Sound of Music

By Dr. Jim Ferguson
I’m a big fan of old movies, especially musicals. But then I’ve listened to Beethoven’s fifth and ninth symphonies at least 100 times with the same enjoyment. Perhaps it is my age, but I ask, why does everything have to be new to be special? We have become a youth-oriented culture. In fact, the current number one late night show is “Gutfeld,” which ballyhoos its highest ratings among the youthful demographic.

You might think this orientation has always been important, but you would be mistaken. History emphasizes wisdom from experience more than useful vigor. (Actually, we need both.) Unfortunately, westerner’s craving of the new and celebration of youth is foregoing wisdom of the ages.

Though I am retired from medical practice, I remain a doctor and a teacher, at least for some. I will repeat, the word doctor derives from the Latin word docere which means to teach. Doctors teach each other, aspiring clinicians, nurses, students and their community. The saying goes, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. The doctor is still within this boy.

As I have aged and acquired a modicum of wisdom, I have come to embrace that my beginnings were foundational to what I am today.

I think we too often take for granted our gifts from previous generations. Perhaps, I once did. I grew up in another era, one of Pax Americana, won by people like my father who fought in World War II. He then came home to finish his education at UT where he met and married my mother. I was given a supportive home and guidance, education and all the components of a civil society described by Timothy P. Carney in his book “Alienated America.” If you want to understand what is wrong with our country you should read this book.

I was given a great gift, the opportunity to make something of myself and be a service to my fellow man. I feel blessed to have had a career in medicine, the one endeavor that I could do well. As a boy I imagined myself becoming a big-league baseball player. But this was the fancy of youth tempered by reality through guidance of wise mentors.

After making it into and through medical school, I entered the final crucible of medical education which would burn away the dross and produce a nascent physician. There is the notion of throwing a boy into water to teach him to swim. So, it was for me at the John Gaston Hospital in Memphis Tennessee. Like most inner-city hospitals, the John Gaston was my crucible.

There is a book written by an intern about his postdoctoral training in a NY inner-city hospital. Samuel Shem’s “House of God,” is not good prose, but was a rite of passage for me and my peers, and exemplified my experience at the Gaston. Someday I may write a book about that experience and the baptism of fire, but as I look back, I consider that difficult, troubling journey as foundational for what I was to become. Foremost, I learned to keep my wits in the midst of life and death battles.

I was trained when medical teaching was done at the patient’s bedside. Patients were privy to the deliberations of the doctor-team composed of medical students, interns, residents, chief resident and attending staff. Patients may not have understood arcane medical concepts, but efforts were always made to explain the situation to them in layman’s terms. Of my many axioms, my wife’s favorite is, “There is no [computer] keystroke for caring,” an observation decrying the devolution of some aspects of modern medical care.

The last vestiges of my traditional medical career continue as a teacher for doctoral candidates of medicine at Lincoln Memorial University.

Last week I led twenty-one students to the “bedside,” but not in the traditional way. It was through the wizardry of Skype/Zoom. It is a different world now. There is enough old-school in me to have doubts about the efficacy and validity of this mode of medical education. But with my modification of the Boy Scout pledge, “I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country” and for those that I serve.

As a science-based person, I believe in the theory of evolution as a scientific explanation for life on earth, just as I believe in the theory of the Big Bang as an explanation for the existence of the Cosmos. But neither are immutable laws as some might say. They are frameworks of thought and works in progress. On receiving an honor, Isaac Newton once explained that his achievements were possible only because he “stood on the shoulders of giants.” And so, it is with me.

The writer of Ecclesiastes was said to be Solomon, purported to be the wisest man who ever lived. Interestingly, the writer of Ecclesiastes identifies himself as the Teacher. I believe the Teacher realized that wisdom is identified with the female pronoun in scripture. In the Ferguson household that truth is appreciated.

As I have written, I am again reading through the Bible this year and recently re-read Ecclesiastes. Many are familiar with sayings from this book of wisdom. Examples are “There is a time for everything” and  “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”

The man who was given wisdom and opportunity by God used the gifts to search for the meaning of life. He tried everything, including pleasures, the pursuit of knowledge, building projects, etc. and found them all ultimately meaningless.

The Teacher goes on a rant for eight chapters and then in the last four comes away with the truth. Paraphrasing he concludes:

We should eat with gladness, drink wine with a joyful heart, enjoy your life with your wife whom you love, do your work to the best of your ability and present yourself reverentially before the Lord, obeying his commandments. Well said, professor.

My own role as a teacher (of sorts) continues in this column. I too stand on the shoulders of giants and proclaim that science attempts to provide us with an explanation of where we came from. But only God can provide a sense of purpose and destiny.