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  • Writer's pictureValerie Brooke, MD

Love and Work

I have been working some sort of job since I was a teenager. My mother was approached at church the summer I had just turned fourteen by a parishioner that owned a local business. He was looking for a part time worker to help him in his shop. At that time in Vermont fourteen was the federal and state legal age to work, and I jumped at the chance.

The parishioner owned a print shop that was connect to a Norman Rockwell museum, both of which were housed in an old barn that had been upgraded. I started working for several hours after church on Sundays, at first just taking admission fees from visitors to the museum, which was full of Saturday Evening Post magazine covers painted by Normal Rockwell. I knew absolutely nothing about art, or about printing and framing, but I quickly learned. I eventually started working hours on Saturdays as well as after school sometimes, though I depended upon my mother to drop me off and pick me up. I learned how to cut glass and frame photos. I learned how good it felt to work and make money. I opened up a checking account, co-signed by my parents of course, so that I could deposit my checks. I learned about taxes, tax returns and saving money.

I eventually moved on from this job when I got to high school and started working in a small local deli, after school and my athletic activities. This work was much harder and busier than the print shop and museum, but I had already gained some skills with people and managing money. I learned how to be very efficient and eventually was closing up the shop in the evenings all by myself. I finally earned enough money to buy my first used car. A total beater, but I loved the freedom it gave me to come and go as I wished.

Since those first formative work experiences I have gone on to have almost as many jobs as I have had working years. I have worked in many different restaurants, either as a waitress, bartender, or cook, and once even progressed my way up to becoming a restaurant manager, a job I found I didn’t really enjoy. I have worked as a barista making fancy espresso drinks, probably the luckiest job I have ever had, since that is how I met my husband Ronando. In college I worked many hours in the writing lab, editing student’s papers and guiding them on how to construct readable essays. After my daughter Erinna was born, I had many other different odd jobs, trying to make ends meet without a yet to be completed college degree. I worked as a bank teller in a credit union, cleaned houses for a bit, and then landed a great job as a customer service representative for a national health insurance company (something that comes in very handy these days being a physician). I worked for a short time in a day care facility taking care of two- and three-year old children, and even worked on a home construction site for a stint, walking around with a tool belt acting like I knew what I was doing.

Eventually I landed up in massage school, something I have my husband to thank for, as he was studying to be a massage therapist when we first met. I remember thinking: I could do that! At the time I thought the reason this vocation would be a good fit for me was the flexibility of being able to set my own schedule and be self-employed. That way I could always be there for Erinna after school, pick her up at the bus stop and support her many extra-curricular activities. Being a massage therapist was the longest thus far I had ever stayed in one profession: nine years! Surprisingly, the reason this job stuck was not because of the flexible schedule. It was because I had finally found the right outlet for my compassion, the right fit for my personality and my strengths. Many years later I would transition to medical school and learn how to become a physician. In both my career as a massage therapist and my new career as a physician, I found my place in the working world. I am able to use my knowledge, listening skills, problem-solving skills, and most importantly, my heart, to take the best care of others as I possibly can.

These words were written by the poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran in 1923, and they deeply resonate with me. These words are the reason I get up so early in the morning to do my self-care routine prior to going to the hospital. They are the reason I want to be healthy for as long as possible; the reason I feel joy and sadness while at work; the reason I do a little jump of joy when a patient starts to have some movement in a paralyzed arm or leg after their stroke, and the reason I get tears in my eyes when a patient is mourning their loss of function. Yes, of course there are hard days, hard moments, hard patients and families. It is the same with everything in life. It’s the harder times however, like the COVID-19 pandemic, that make the easier times that more savory. It’s the easy-going patients and families that allow me to store up extra positive energy to provide to the ones that are really struggling with their disability and disease. It took me a very long time to find work that I really love, and I so appreciate all the jobs I have had along the way. They all have made me the physician I am today.

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