Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Alicia von Stamwitz on The Good Doctor

He was a Caucasian man in his mid-50s, working in one of the nation’s top psychiatric hospitals here in the Midwest. I met him at a party and discovered that he grew up in Boston, where I went to college. Making small talk, I asked him when he’d last visited Boston. He paused, and a sheepish look crossed his face. “My parents still live there and so does one of my kids, so I should get back more often...but it’s been 3 or 4 years, I guess.”

I nodded. “It must be hard, being so far away.” It was meant to be an innocuous comment to allow for a change of subject, but his pained expression told me he wanted to say more.

“You know, last summer I treated this guy around my age,” he said. “He was a Mexican guy dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues. He spoke very little English, so we had an interpreter with us. I don’t like to admit this, but one of the things we health professionals are trained to do is size up people quickly. When I walked in and shook hands with this guy, the first words that popped into my head were, ‘Illegal. Uneducated. Poor.’

“Anyway, as part of the treatment plan I told him I would be calling a family meeting. The interpreter gave me a funny look then, one that said, Seriously? I remember being irritated by that, figuring she thought I was clueless about immigrants and their situations. But I’m not a schmuck. I had checked the guy’s chart and I knew he had family here. Still, I had to repeat the sentence before she turned to the guy to translate it.”

He swirled his Cabernet and took a sip before continuing. “Two weeks later, I found out why she gave me that look. When I walked into the conference room we use for family meetings, twenty-three people were in the room, squeezed into chairs and lining the walls. The wife and kids, aunts and uncles, a bunch of cousins—and his grandmother, seated at the head of the table where I usually sit, with her arms crossed over her chest and an all-business look on her face.”

The good doctor leaned in then, eyeball to eyeball, and said: “You tell me. Who’s the poor schmuck in this picture?”

Consider: What thoughts or feelings does the doctor’s story bring to mind?

Alicia (Arellano) von Stamwitz is an award-winning freelance author and longtime editor with the religious press whose exclusive interviews and profiles of today's most influential spiritual leaders are published internationally ( She served as one of our regular contributors through the first year of the "Monks in Our Midst" series.

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