Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

This has been a summer of constant work. No other distractions or crises— just work, seven days a week. Long days, often beginning at seven and then phone calls, emails and chart reviews until 8 p.m.

The weekends have been filled with chart reviews that I have done periodically but have now chosen to do with each annual visit. After all, after 25 years of time with a patient, it is helpful to review anew the past and the story of our time together. This kind of work requires quiet time and often becomes diagnostic as the patient’s memory in the present may no longer be in sync with the story told at that first visit years ago. Initial patient interviews and evaluations lasting two or three hours cannot be integrated in the space of that first consultation. It’s customary that I spend an hour on the weekend for two separate weekends with each chart of a new patient, putting the pieces together of a one thousand piece puzzle that has only a blurred picture on the puzzle box to guide me.

I have clues from each woman’s life stage, clues from the narrative of her life, clues from her symptoms, clues from her physical exam and clues from her goals and choices. But the strange work I do diagnostically begins in the quiet hour when I am alone with her story, and work to understand how she became who she is at this time.

I write the story in narrative form in each patient’s chart and it is the writing that distills my thoughts. The next weekend I have the chart with me again, with additional clues from diagnostic tests. For each woman, the original narrative and this new information generally give me the insight I need to create a plan that will work uniquely for her — to allow her to obtain better health and understand the importance of self care.
Medical team building requires that each patient must be the equal partner in her goals for good health care. I have known patients who prefer to just fax their body parts in to the office and have a bit looked over and a blessing made or a treatment prescribed. But, sadly, this does not fit in the work that is done in a medical relationship with me.

But this doctor lost her way this summer. I forgot balance. Before I knew it, this summer of intense work was almost over and I had been the worst of role models for my patients. Healing after all, does not come just from listening to the patient, examining the body, performing the diagnostic tests and putting the puzzle together. Healing in its best form, involves being a decent role model for the patient. Since I preach moderation in eating and drinking and prescribe fitness in body and mind, and promote mindfulness and living fully in the moment and finding balance in work and life, then I have not been the role model I could have been this summer. I had run out of fuel and did not know that I was running on fumes until this morning.

I was invited to stay on Nantucket with my dear friend who has known me the longest and has been the most important mentor in my life. Caught up in the need to catch up more and more, I felt initially that I could not take time away. The husband, however, was sick-sick-sick of our taking no time off. Although he has always respected my need to do my work in the way that I have always needed to do it, he insisted that we take time to recover–to reconnect and reconsider how the current way of working and living might not be working as well as it could. Chooses his words very carefully, the husband does.

He avoids the judgmental, but is a force for moral choices like common sense and having a life outside the world of medicine. “Do your work the way you must since only you know what must be done, but it is important to clear your mind and refresh your body and spirit so that you can continue to be the kind of doctor you are, but also find time for friends and joy.” I often tease the husband that over the years of our marriage he fancies that he is a doctor. Well, he was my doctor and guide as I trusted him enough to stop and take time for a holiday.

Yesterday we drove to Hyannis and took the fast ferry to Nantucket: So much better than flying. The husband and I love road trips and this was an easy drive with no bad directions from our guide with the sweet voice. I had decompressed significantly by the time we were on the fast ferry to Nantucket. I flirted with a charming two year old boy who will, I expect, never be the same after that experience. The husband and I went to the top deck as we always do on this trip to watch those immense motors kick in for the hydroplane effect. The day was glorious with sun and wind and ocean all around.

Mary met us at the wharf and laughed as always at my over-packing. I don’t like to make decisions about what to leave behind; I believe in packing for three seasons with everything but a ball gown no matter where I travel. “You never know,” is one of my many mottoes.

We were to stay in the familiar guest house designed to give everyone privacy and comfort. This is a place that I have visited over the last 30 years and love being here. My office at 90th St and Madison is the unchanging place of my life. Relationships and places have been less permanent, so it is a balm for my battered spirit to be at home with Mary and John again.

Last night was filled with unpacking and dinner out in a favorite restaurant with wonderful Nantucket brewed beer and steak tartar, walking as one does here to and from dinner. It was a perfect night. I never feel more connected than I do with Mary, who knows me the way only a friend who has watched another with love and guidance for 40 years can. We felt the same way about the rolls (too cold and hard, send them back) and the noise in this now too-successful restaurant. But the food was wonderful and the gradually ebbing away of work demands was working on the restoration of my health.

I woke this morning to absolute stillness and birdsong. I woke when I woke, not when the alarm clock of daily demands grabs me by the throat and thrashes me awake. I started my morning routine, and then realized that I did not need to find my blessings as I have to do each day in order to get out and get on with it. I am here in a sacred place of memory, healing and hope. I realized that like so many others in these difficult and uncertain times, I had lost my way.

I had taken on the national fear of the new world order of failure and chaos and had responded with my always certain survivor skills. Work harder, work longer, do everything right and just get through one day to the next to do it again. This is how a survivor lives, after all.

This morning I have had a coffee, quietly, with my favorite breakfast foods thoughtfully left here in the house for guests by the woman who understands so well how to make others comfortable. I can see that the world is not falling apart, it is just in transition. The doctor is in and her patient is herself. Healing has begun.

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  • Barbara Thornbrough September 1, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Wow- you need more breaks. Take them- enjoy them – make them longer. You are entitled to “get away. Start planning a week in Vermont or NH for fall foliage. Even take “the hubby” along. Since it has rained all summer the leaves should be fabulous.
    You should only feel guilty about time off if have not worked hard during the day. We all know you work hard so: Breath and relax.
    Get rid of that dreaded alarm clock and have your husband wake you up. The image of the clock grabbing you by the throat is just hysterically funny. Ah- these articles you write are great. I enjoy them so much.
    Cheers, Barbara

  • Toni Geyelin August 30, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Bravo! Do not drive yourself into oblivion again, dear one. You are the one who preaches the need for balance and a bit of fun. Be mindful that you get what you need to stay balanced. Thank heaven you went to Nantucket and “found the cure”! And, bless “the husband” for insisting. A big hug, Toni

  • ellen August 22, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    It was wonderful to see you in this Nantucket venue. No gloss, no pretension, just the fun of being together and sharing a dinner. You and “the husband” were a wonderful addition to my loved houseguests, being quickly absorbed into the fun — and disorder- of an island dinner. After you left, we cleaned up in minutes and sat around talking into the wee hours, each reporting tidbits of conversation with you both and with Mary and using that as a springboard for much more. Let’s do it again!

    Rest well.

    Love, Ellen