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Doctors' Writing Contest 2011 Grand Prize Winner: The Pong Principle


After nearly 20 years of practicing medicine, the author has come to expect patients to ask his advice about everything in their lives.

Key Points

Once in a great while, the exam table turns during a patient encounter, and I find myself in unfamiliar territory. I had such an experience about a year ago, and it will forever change the way I practice medicine, the way I parent, and the way I view my most important relationships.

Mrs. Marilyn Love (name used with the patient's permission), a mild-mannered, pleasant, 70-year-old woman, was in for a follow-up visit. She was doing well. No new problems. I was completing her encounter form and rising to escort her out of the room when she turned to me and said, "Now, Dr. Ellis, what can I do for you today?"

She waited expectantly as I tripped over my own thoughts. To say I don't often get this kind of question from a patient would be an understatement. Even my best friends rarely ask me this. I wondered if it was apparent I was struggling with something? And, if it was, might she have something to offer?

Maybe she had read my mind, which was becoming increasingly overwhelmed with the challenges of raising four children between the ages of 10 and 16. I felt my wife and I were treading water to stay on top of their growing bodies, changing ways, and scary thinking.

Transitioning from the smartest dad in the world when they were in elementary school, to a complete dunce as they entered the worlds of middle school and high school, was tough for me. I didn't have a clue how to relate to these creatures living in my house. I was struggling to understand where I might have gone wrong. What kinds of kids was I raising? How was I going to do it? Was there even a right way?

We laughed and talked a few minutes about how she and her teenage sons had played ping pong for hours at a time, sharing great fun and talks over the table. That evening, I mentioned the exchange to my wife, who was hesitant to give up her garage parking spot for a dinosaur that probably wouldn't hold our kids' interest more than a few days. I didn't give our conversation much thought during the next several days.

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