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A Neurologist’s Gifts of Skill and Compassion

Reader Joanell Serra wrote this thoughtful essay about her neurologist as a guest post for The Daily Headache. 

Injection-able Moments

By Joanell Serra

If you met my doctor in a coffee shop, you might guess he’s a bartender, or a school teacher. Not a renowned neurologist. He lacks the arrogance and aloofness of a typical top specialist.

Dr. M greets me like a friend in the waiting room, jokes as he hands me a three page patient release form, and chats as he fills an enormous syringe with toxins, steroids, and other potions. Today, he’s attempting to block my occipital nerve, the apparent culprit for my migraine.

The first time I came here, he asked me why I was switching doctors.

“My old neurologist doesn’t like immigrants,” I said. “He told me Trump was the only one who could save us. We needed to build a wall to protect ourselves from the Latinos, and throw the Muslims out too. I couldn’t go back to him, regardless of his medical expertise.”

“That’s terrible.” Dr. M commiserated. After a moment’s pause, he added. “I’m an immigrant you know.”

He explained his long history of migration, from the middle-east, through Europe, all the way to UCSF.

His fingers probe my scalp, until he locates a spot at the base of my neck. The needle goes in, pain waves coursing from my spine to my face, radiating from my jaw to the outer edge of my eye.

I try to be still while cursing quietly. This pain means he’s on track. He has the right spot.

“Keep breathing.” He says. “Think about a moment in your childhood.”

“Are you kidding me?” I blurt out. “That won’t help me relax!”

We stop while we both laugh, and catch our breath. We are temporarily joined in this partnership: he administers pain. I weather it. Together, we might beat this thing. Although the odds are against us. Most chronic migraineurs get worse over time, not better.

My headaches cause bizarre symptoms, but Dr. M consistently reassures me.

“Is it normal that it’s worse when it rains?” I ask him.

“Yes.”

“And that words move on the page if I try to read?”

“Absolutely. Common problem.”

“And my teeth hurt, my hands go numb, and I can smell onions cooking in a house around the corner?”

“Typical.”

He doesn’t offer me false hope, or an instant cure. But there’s healing in knowing I am not alone.

In a time when our politicians demonize immigrants, and threaten to expunge them from our midst, my health relies on the skills of this one. And I’m glad it does.

I’m so grateful Dr. M crossed the world to be here, in this moment, my doctor. Whatever made him immigrate—probably very challenging reasons—I’m better off for it, as are his many patients.

Dr. M brought with him not only a passion for medicine, and surgical skill, but warmth, a sense of humor, and an eagerness to partner with me in this difficult process. These are all gifts. I appreciate them. Even his skill with a very long needle.


Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. An award winning playwright, and short story writer, she has published stories in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Poydras Review and LimeHawk.  She attended the Santa Barbara’s Writer’s Conference as a prize winner, and belongs to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the California Writers Club. Her story, Night Swimming was recently chosen and performed by Wild Sound Festival (June 2016).  She plans to publish her novel, Tangled Vines, in 2017. You can read more of her work and find links to many of her stories at www.joanellwrites.com.

Reader-submitted stories solely represent the personal point of view, experience, and opinion of the author, not of The Daily Headache or Kerrie Smyres.

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