Objects of unknown origin

My graduation from Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, in the early 1990s, coincided with the second wave of immigration from Russia to Israel. There was a moment in which it seemed that these immigrants were all doctors looking for a position as a resident-doctor in General Surgery. I interviewed with several chairmen in different Departments of Surgery, who all came up with the same response: “Where were you when we were actually looking for a resident? We have just filled all available residency positions with doctors from Russia. Can you come back in a year, perhaps even two?”

In desperation, I applied for a resident position at the Department of General and Thoracic Surgery in Wolfson Hospital in Holon. The hospital was farther away from my home, it served a poor, disadvantaged population, and it had never enjoyed an outstanding reputation.

I found myself waiting for Professor Weissberg, the Chairman of the Department, in his office. “Sit here,” his head-nurse, Sima, told me in a commanding voice, “the professor is in surgery–you never know when surgery starts; you never know when it ends. Never a dull moment.”

I sat holding my resume folder close to my chest and looked around the room. The Professor’s desk was massive, and the walls were completely covered with the Professor’s certificates and diplomas. At the center of one wall, surrounded by diplomas, I noticed–and how could I have missed such a sight–two large wooden cases with a glass window. Inside these boxes, I could see a collection of objects seemingly sharing little in common: a 25-Agorot coin, a small avocado pit, a fish bone, a set of dentures, a miniature bottle of wine, several sex-toys of different shapes and colors, and a razor blade.

Just as I was trying to figure out the nature of these, I heard the professor entering the room. He was slim and agile. He wore green, loose scrubs, and a white coat on top. He shook my hand, sat at his desk, and cleared his throat.

“So you want to work for me. When would you like to start?” he asked, and cleared his throat again.

“Whenever you would like me to,” I answered with no hesitation.

“Very well, then. Tomorrow, at 6:00 a.m. sharp,” he said, “and prepare to work hard, really hard.”

He stood up and reached across his desk to shake my hand again. That was it.

Over the next 18 months, I worked in Professor Weissberg’s Department. There were three other residents working with me. They were all Russian who spoke broken Hebrew and claimed to have been big-shot-surgeons before arriving in Israel. One of them was a bit older than me, the other was in his 40s, the third, who said he was a “big professor” in Russia, was in his late 50s. In Israel, as new immigrants, they were starting from scratch, joining a residency like I did, and facing skepticism and disrespect. I also had some doubts about the stories they told me, but as soon as I saw them doing surgery, I realized that they all were gifted surgeons. I treated them with great respect, and they, in turn, taught me how to use a scalpel, sew up an incision, tie a suture, remove an inflamed gallbladder, and repair a hernia.

About Professor Weissberg, I learned that he was born in Poland to a Jewish family, that as a little boy he barely survived the holocaust, and that as a teenager, he had to hide from the Nazis in a closet, for several weeks.

“I had only one book when I was hiding,” he told me, “so, to escape boredom and fear, I read it again, and again, and again.”

Weissberg was a collector. At any free moment, he was reading–collecting knowledge–with unmatched thirst. Besides the collection I called “objects of unknown origin,” I saw, hanging on his office wall, collected medical articles–carefully categorized into subjects and perfectly organized in carton shoeboxes–and, perhaps most interestingly, he collected stories of the patients he operated on–handwriting their medical tales on flashcards, which he kept in a side-drawer in his desk.

One day, Weissberg suggested that I would translate, from English to Hebrew, an article he wrote, describing such a group of patients he “collected” who had had Retrosternal Goiter.

“The English version would be published in an American journal,” he said, “and your translation would appear in Harefuah (Israel’s Medical Journal).”

I remember working diligently on the translation. Several days later, to my horror, after hours of desperate searching, I realized that I had lost the original English article.

“I lost your original article,” I told Weissberg, “so I translated my Hebrew translation back to English.”

Professor Weissberg took one look at the two articles, both translated by me, one from English to Hebrew, the other from Hebrew back to English, cleared his throat, and calmly announced: “I see what you had done here, Shahar: you translated the article I wrote from good English to bad English.”

A story like that makes me smile. It revives, in my mind, the younger version of me–a young man eager to make a mark on the world–whom I miss terribly.

Why do I bother to tell you about Professor Weissberg and of his collection of “objects of unknown origin”? Perhaps it is a clue to the case I presented two weeks ago–about the young athlete who suddenly became extremely sick, and the doctor whose knowledge of Mathematics helped solve the medical riddle. Perhaps it is because I always wanted to tell you that the knowledge we collect is the key to solving the problems we are about to face. I shall return, I promise.

Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist working at Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital. He sees patients in Laurium, Houghton and L’Anse. Contact him at smadjar@yahoo.com.

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