Dr. Nasri Ghaly, Psychiatrist (Part I)


When I am sitting with a medical specialist, trying to explain the peculiar oddities of my health problems, sooner or later it becomes appropriate to say, “Well, Dr. Ghaly says—.”  If the specialist knows Dr. Ghaly then he reacts as if all the things I have been telling him have suddenly assumed weight and authenticity.  “If this patient has consulted with Dr. Ghaly, and Dr. Ghaly says—then, surely, this patient is sick and I must figure out why.”  If the specialist does not know Dr. Ghaly, then I always feel an explanation is in order.

Dr. Nasri Ghaly and his wife Dr. Hoda Ghaly graduated from medical school in Cairo, Egypt, then went out to practice rural medicine, this medicine being the care and treatment of 30,000 people divided into two villages between which the Doctors Ghaly lived.  They lived without electricity or running water and had to walk a mile for water twice a day.  This was truly rural medicine.

            I was hospitalized on Y2K when half the country was terrified that life as we knew it would come to halt when the clock struck midnight and the new century began.  As Dr. Ghaly watched the hospital’s tense preparations—an outside laundry was contracted for services; cots were piled in the hallways; staff were denied leave—he shook his head with some puzzlement and said, “What is so terrible about having no electricity or water?”  Hearkening back to his time of practicing rural medicine, he said, “After supper we would listen to the [battery operated] radio.  We would sit out under the stars and talk to each other.  It was not a bad life.”

            What was bad, he once admitted with a trace of bitterness, was his inability to provide adequate medical care.  He refers to it as “when I practiced with only penicillin and a rusty scalpel.”  But what was good was listening to his patients.

            Dr. Ghaly had been taught by a medical professor whom he revered that all diagnoses arise from good listening.  The patient knows what is wrong; it is the doctor’s job to provide an environment in which the patient can reveal the facts that will lead to the diagnosis.  On many occasions—so many—Dr. Ghaly has told me that he wished his old professor could listen to me.  I know—know what?  What is wrong with me?  Dr. Ghaly and I do not know, but he continues to listen to me, trusting that someday I will say something that will inform us.

He tells of making house calls to his rural patients.  The doctor coming to call—that was important.  That was a great occasion and the doctor would be sat down in the best chair and treated to a glass of tea and conversation.  Dr. Ghaly said that before he ever examined the patient, he would know the diagnosis.  If you listen, you can know.

            Dr. Ghaly is one of four sons born to an agricultural engineer and his wife.  Papa Ghaly was also the mayor of their village, and a classic Egyptian patriarch.  Dr. Ghaly’s oldest brother fought in one of the several wars between Israel and Egypt.  It was a debacle because the leaders of the country and the military had grossly misled the Egyptian troops about their strength and Israel’s weakness.  Disillusioned, the older brother came to the United States to study.  Sometime later, the second brother came for a short visit with his older brother, but stayed permanently.

Papa Ghaly decided then, as is the right of the patriarch, that to keep the family together—which is what is important, what matters the most—they all would move to the United States, including his son Nasri, daughter-in-law Hoda, and grandson Fadi.  They moved to New York City, where American medicine, in its parochial arrogance, maintained that foreign-educated physicians were unworthy of reciprocity.  A degree in medicine from one of the oldest universities in the world was not as good as a degree from the lowliest medical school in America.  So Dr. Ghaly worked as a janitor while establishing his medical competence according to American standards.  It was the sort of honest work a humble man of God could do.

In Egypt, he had been a practitioner of rural medicine.  In the United States, he became a psychiatrist.  When asked why, he said simply, “Because it is what I do.”  He listens, and cares about a person’s psyche.  As a wise man of his village, he was called either to enter the priesthood or to become a physician.  The priesthood had a strong draw for this man of faith, but he smiles and says, “I would not have been just any priest.”  With his hand, he slices the air a foot above his head and says, “I would have been—how do you say it?”

“Pope?” I ask, and he nods cheerfully.  He is humble, but realistic about his considerable gifts.  Dr. Ghaly is a Coptic Christian, which is most similar to Roman Catholic in America, the Roman Catholic Church having been founded on St. Peter and the Coptic Christian Church being founded on St. Paul.  Dr. Ghaly is a man of deep faith, and practices medicine as a service to God and God’s people.  In his left pants pocket, he carries a bundle of keys; in his right pocket he carries a rosary.  It is always about God.  (To be continued)

For the antithesis to Dr. Ghaly, see St. Joseph’s Hospital:  About Carol http://behindthelockeddoors.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/st-joseph%e2%80%99s-hospital-about-carol-part-ii/

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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