Viewpoint: Life's path can be envisioned as a double helix

September 19, 2008

Life can be envisioned as a double helix: a spiral stairway whose length we cannot know. Have you ever paid close attention to the stairs you climb?

As I complete a half-century of life, I see another meaning to Watson and Crick's double helix model of DNA. Life can be envisioned as a different sort of double helix: a spiral stairway whose length we cannot know. From birth onward, we move slowly around an axis; with every turn, we're a little higher, a little wiser, further along a path that is familiar yet ever new.

Have you ever paid close attention to the stairs you climb? Until I saw ornate staircases in mansions and state capitol buildings, I never gave steps much thought. The intricate designs of talented craftsmen are bona fide works of art. Picturesque railings offer support as we pull ourselves up a steep ascent.

Imagine your own life as a stairway. Would it be fashioned of marble? Oak? Iron? Would it be lavishly decorated to attract attention, or minimally functional to support your scurry onward? Before college, I didn't pay much attention to details. I was focused on the steps themselves: elementary school, high school, college.

As I entered my thirties, the steps of my life path initially seemed more predictable. I met my birth parents, and the formerly fuzzy sense that there were railings beside me came into clearer focus, as I learned which of my traits were genetic and which were born through nurture. I leaned less on handrails for support. Still, I stumbled down a few steps, with transitions between group practices causing a few bumps. Also during this period, my son was stillborn, and soon afterward my father died. In struggling through these challenges, I discovered that I had more strength than I suspected. Grief was a draining, dizzying climb . . . but in time I reached a landing, gathered my breath and my confidence, and opened a solo practice at age 42.

As I peer down the center of the double helix I've climbed, I see how family and friends served as sturdy balusters beneath the rail I leaned on in my youth. My parents sacrificed to see that I had a good education. Teachers encouraged me to explore musical and writing gifts. Support often came through small, caring gestures: birthday books from my father's friend that sparked my lifelong love of reading; $5 holiday gifts sent faithfully by my grandfather.

Later, new mentors appeared: family physicians who introduced an impressionable young medical student to the joys and challenges of primary care, senior residents, colleagues in my first practice. People on the sidelines often seem peripheral . . . but like the balustrade on a stairway, their support is indispensable when we lose our footing and look desperately for something to cling to.

Looking at recent turns of my spiral, I see there are spindles missing. Dear friends, patients, and family members have fallen out of my life. I am grateful for the support they gave when it counted.

I encourage my fellow docs to ponder this metaphor. There is more to life than clambering from one step to another. Stopping to see the rosettes-and fingernail gouges!-along our helical path enables us to recognize and thank supporters before it's too late.

From where I stand, I can't clearly make out the sculpted newel post at the top of my stairs. But there is beautiful sun slanting through stained glass, and I look forward to the rest of the journey.

Elizabeth A. Pector, MD, is a solo family physician in Naperville, Illinois. Send your feedback to meletters@advanstar.com