What inspired you to become a healthcare provider?
The illness and ultimately death of my father on Christmas day, 1970, soon after his discharge from the Bronx VA Hospital, which was then very much a Dickensian setting. That ghastly, tragic experience showed me I could function rationally and calmly amidst ghastly, tragic experiences and lessened any reservations I might have felt about my ability to function in medical settings.
Why did you focus on pain management?
I didn't, initially. As an endocrinology research fellow at Mass General, I collaborated with Mike Arnold of Joseph Martin's lab to develop one of the early assays for beta-endorphin. We applied this to study hormonal effects of physical conditioning, and authored the famous “runners’ endorphins” study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Soon we were collaborating with many people including some in anesthesiology. Sensing a long-term opportunity, I went back and did another residency in that field. I imagined I'd divide my time between neuroanesthesia and lab work, but the department chair had other ideas. In the final months of my residency he approached me with an offer to work alongside the lone anesthesiologist who had been doing pain medicine at the MGH since Henry Beecher's era in the 1940s. Although not my plan, it made sense and I apprenticed myself to that older clinician for about 5 years.
Who were your mentors?
As a medical student at Columbia: the intensivist Glenda Garvey; the endocrinologist Andrew Frantz; and the neurologist Sid Gilman. At one point I considered going into neurology.
As an endocrine fellow at the MGH: John Potts, Michael Rosenblatt, and Joseph Martin--the latter two later were Deans at Tufts and Harvard, respectively.
In anesthesiology at the MGH: its long-term chairman Richard Kitz (whose friendship I still cherish) and Donald Todd, to whom I apprenticed in pain and regional anesthesia. Dick Kitz asked Michael Cousins to provide a blueprint for the growth of the MGH Pain Center, and Michael became a friend and collaborator.
If you weren’t a healthcare provider, what would you be?
Something in physics--I have a master’s degree in that area from Columbia. Or possibly a nautical trade--I used to have a Coast Guard license, ran a sailing school, and delivered sailboats.
What is your most marked characteristic?
An “embedded sense of duality.” This phrase was my journalist/critic brother’s distillation of my awkwardly worded agreement with his speculation that we might be cousins of George Carr Shaw (Bernard Shaw’s father), and the nature of the cognitive quirk I felt we all had in common. It’s hard to explain this in a few words. “Stubbornness” also deserves mention.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’m working on it right now.
What is your favorite language?
My personal sample is inadequate to support a reply. I do, however, enjoy hearing my son speak Mandarin and my younger daughter speak Gaelic.
If you had to choose one book, one film, and one piece of music to take into space for an undetermined amount of time, what would they be?
My house is strewn with books. I can’t see myself bringing only one. If pressed, I’d bring Montaigne’s Essays because of his classical learning--that I always associate with calming timeless wisdom--and the book’s ability to provide companionship, owing to the clarity with which it conveys Montaigne’s reasonable personality. Plus, it’s long enough not to be a quick read. Perhaps because my journalist brother has always covered drama, music, and cinema, I’ve never been deeply engaged with movies. If pressed, maybe a toss-up between Chaplin’s Modern Times and Wilder’s One, Two, Three. I find Ravel an antidote to feeling unraveled; so, his string quartet. None of these choices are meant to be a pinnacle; instead, just meant to slow the psychosis that would slowly creep over me if I really did find myself in space for an undetermined amount of time.
What would you like your legacy to be?
On a public level: students, trainees, and colleagues whose own wishes to make the world a better place were brought a little bit closer to fruition as a result of their interaction with me. On a private level, my wife and I are blessed with wonderful, interesting, and sincere children--our legacy.
What is your motto?
I don’t have one.