Being a psychiatrist sometimes seems to be right up there in job respect with Mafia lawyer, Enron accountant and Vikings wide receiver. Even within medicine itself, psychiatrists appear—on the surface—to be the Rodney Dangerfields of the profession. I once heard it said by an obviously modest surgeon, “Those who can become surgeons. Those who can’t become psychiatrists.” Because of the complexities of the human brain, and the depths of the human heart and soul, psychiatry has traditionally been the “dark science” of medicine: iffy, imprecise and burdened with the uncomfortable weight of a century of treatments running the gamut from Freudian analysis, to ice-pick lobotomy, to PET scans and Prozac.
In 1995, New Mexico legislators introduced a bill stating that whenever a psychiatrist would testify, the doctor would have to put on a fake beard and wizard’s hat—and whenever the doctor made a point, the lights would be dimmed, a Chinese gong would be struck and the psychiatrist would have to jab a “magic wand” in the air. Kind of funny except when you consider that the bill passed. The only reason it didn’t become law was because the governor vetoed it. It seems that psychiatrists and consumers have more in common than either may know or admit. I’ve always said that you’re not paranoid if everybody really does hate you!
Psychiatrists have an extra year of unpaid residency, and they know that their salary will be about one-third of what an orthopedic surgeon makes. With HMOs so performance-based, and with the shortage of psychiatrists, it takes an average of six weeks to get an appointment. “I’m sorry Mr. Feigal, but to prevent office visits from taking too much time, the HMO insists that I only answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ questions.” And it’s often the doctor who takes the brunt of anger and frustration from desperate consumers and their families.
So why would anyone want to be a psychiatrist? Maybe because the successful treatment rate for depression is over 85 percent and getting better. (We wish it was as good for heart disease.) Despite the myths and misperceptions that MI is a death sentence, the majority of the patients psychiatrists see actually get better, often dramatically and relatively quickly. Maybe because the brain is the last frontier of medical science, and with the new breakthroughs—including the mapping of the human genome—psychiatry over the next decade will become one of the most exciting areas of medicine. Maybe because by working in this field there is the chance to truly transform people’s lives. The technical thrills of heart surgery must be fantastic, but by helping people in such deep illness and despair find healing and hope, I doubt there could be more satisfaction and sense of purpose.
As a consumer speaker and writer, I’ve become a magnet for “treatment horror stories.” And I think that because of the intimate nature of illness, especially MI, sometimes people measure all doctors—especially psychiatrists—by the few bad ones they’ve experienced. But you can’t judge people that way—in fields of medicine, or religion, or sex or race. You have to take people one at a time as you find them.
When I was a patient at Abbott Northwestern’s partial program battling life-threatening depression, my psychiatrist was Dr. Michael Trangle. One of his checkups came right after a painful group, and I was in too much grief to speak, and started to weep. Dr. Trangle didn’t try to make me talk about what was hurting me. He didn’t try to beguile me from my pain or do any therapy with me. He knew that therapy at that moment would have been like me being on fire with him describing the flames. He just let me grieve. Not talking, not trying to “fix” me, just letting me feel my feelings. He sat with me and silently shared my grief for over 30 minutes, never once glancing at his watch or hurrying me in any way. Nothing could have been more healing to me at that moment than his quiet compassion.
I will never forget that incredible moment of healing, a moment that helped me immensely with my recovery. Dr. Trangle’s enormous medical competence, combined with his kindness and respect of my own mental health experience and opinions, helped me work through decades of despair, and my personal progress has gone forward ever since. Motorcycles are one of my passions, and in motorcycle racing one of the highest compliments you can give another racer is to find a cool racing name for him, almost like the “call signs” that jet fighter pilots have. When I left Abbott, I gave Mike Trangle a motorcycle drawing I’d done while under his care, and signed it: “To ‘SuperBike’ Mike.”
Dr. Ron Groat is the kind of doctor that everyone just calls “Ron,” the kind of person you can naturally talk with and open up to, that you instinctively trust and believe in. He knows how to combine the best professional medical care with just the perfect touch of personal attention. And he’s kind and respectful to everyone he works with.
He often uses a plastic scale model of the human brain in his workshops, so he is affectionately known as “The Man With Two Brains,” and he mixes just as many “Far Side” cartoons in his slide presentations as pie charts. Whether he’s doing Grand Rounds at the Mayo Clinic, or speaking to 7th graders, every question is just as important and deserving of his time, respect and energy.
He volunteers his passion and talents speaking to churches, high schools, colleges, corporations, hospitals, prisons and police departments. He will run a two-hour program, then stay and personally answer individual questions from desperate moms and dads about their own troubled families for an additional two hours. He stays until every question is answered, every family comforted and every person has had a chance to speak privately with him. He’s even done this during Vikings play-off games, so there is no doubt about his commitment!
Ron not only gives hundreds of his precious hours to speak and educate about MI, he also gives his equally precious name and reputation to work with and for people with mental illness, bringing his own credibility to make their voices heard and respected.
I’m glad that there are people who want to be psychiatrists, willing to face and transform stigma and outdated attitudes about MI. Doctors who understand that they’re not treating diseases, they’re treating people—and who know that cold, medical efficiency may be appropriate for removing coronary blockage, but isn’t enough for this very unique branch of medicine where kindness combined with medical experience is the true key to healing ill brains and broken hearts.
Psychiatry is no longer the dark science. But even with the new medical breakthroughs, medications and MEG scans, the treatment of mental illness is—and will always continue to be, in my opinion—still more of an art than a science. Luckily there are more and more Michelangelos out there—people of kindness and spirit like Ron and “SuperBike” Mike.