An Interview With Michael Litrel, MD, FACOG, FPMRS – Part 2 of a 3 Part Series
Of all the specialties you could have chosen, why did you choose obstetrics and gynecology?
I was quite surprised myself that I chose OB/GYN. I really hadn’t thought of it as a specialty before I attended medical school because I was more inclined towards surgery. However, when I delivered my first baby, it was such a miraculous moment in my life. It was 3:00 in the morning, and I remember it distinctly. I was in awe that this child actually came from a woman’s body. Ten seconds later, as I was placing that baby into that little infant warmer, I realized that I wanted to participate in this miracle; that I was going to be an obstetrician. It was a profound moment for me, and I can’t begin to express how much great personal satisfaction and enjoyment I’ve received over the years by taking care of women and women’s issues.
Your wife Ann also works at Cherokee Women’s. Do you find it difficult to separate work-related issues from home life, or do you find it can strengthen a relationship?
Ann works on public relations for the clinic and I have my medical practice so yes, we work under the same roof and our paths do cross but we each tend to our own professions. I’m a doctor, something I’ve wanted to be since the age of seven and Ann is, first and foremost, an artist.
In answer to the second part of your question regarding separating work-related issues from home life, I think it’s very important to be married to your best friend and someone you trust implicitly. Ann is both of those to me.
We have a strong, healthy relationship and have been married for 28 years. Like any normal couple, we have our ups and downs, but we know how to apologize and go on from there. We’ve grown together and share similar interests. We agree on many things, including our relationship with God, and about becoming better people. As we advance through life, we continue to support, encourage and help each other. We’ve known each other half our lives so I wouldn’t say being a doctor and discussing work-related issues makes either my job or my marriage harder, any more than Ann being an artist and sharing her passion for it impacts either of those things.
You have an identical twin brother named Chris. When growing up, did you find that you and he shared that proverbial ‘brain’.
As identical twins, he and I understood each other so well that we didn’t learn to speak early or verbalize our thoughts to other people.
However, we’re very different. My brother is a lawyer by trade, and a lawyer’s thought process is entirely different from a doctor’s. Physicians focus more on immediate problems, whereas attorneys think three years ahead of time. Still, we’re very close and I rely on his counsel a great deal.
If you decided to retire tomorrow, what would you do?
Do you mean if I stopped practicing medicine? Well, I love what I do so as long as I’m healthy enough to keep doing it, I don’t really want to retire unless I absolutely have to. If anything, as I get older, I’ve become a better surgeon so I’d like to continue for as long as possible.
My other passion would be writing and speaking about the relationship between health and spirituality, something that’s very important to me. That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the care of women and their health—because what life event could possibly be more spiritual and meaningful than the birth of a child?
I chose to specialize in surgical gynecology because human beings grow inside of a woman’s body, and sometimes you need a surgeon that can bring them safely into the world. I enjoy it, not only for the concrete aspects of surgery, but also for the deep spiritual meaning of this process known as the creation of a life.
We can clinically describe how a single cell turns into a newborn baby over 280 days, but the process itself is miraculous. It’s a testimony to the fact that our lives have deep purpose and deep meaning, and that God grants us life.
If you were to write another book, what topic would you choose?
As it happens, I’m currently working on a book on pelvic reconstructive surgery, but I’m also tying it in with the correlation between health and spirituality. Women not only endure suffering and damage to their bodies, but also to their souls. We all do. So the book I’m writing expands on that subject.
Women have unique human problems because of the nature of creating new life inside their bodies, and there’s suffering that comes from that process. So from that perspective, I’m writing about the nature of surgery in terms of when to have it and when not to have it. I’m also writing about the nature of health since health is not only about the physical but about the sexual and spiritual aspects as well.
I’d like to educate patients on the fact that we’re not human beings having spiritual problems, but that we’re spiritual beings having human problems. These human problems we all sometimes have call for the attention of a surgeon.
Do you like to travel? If so, where was your favorite place?
One of the things I like about practicing medicine is that I don’t have to travel anywhere. People from all over the world come to see me. I guess I’m more of a homebody than I am a traveler. I like keeping my life pretty simple. I have traveled and visited many different countries, but it’s not my favorite thing to do. I’ll go, but I prefer to stay home.
As a busy OB/GYN surgeon, I’m sure the demands can be overwhelming. How do you deal with those demands – both at work and at home?
I try to manage my schedule in such a way that I can always be in top form whenever I have patient duties. When I see my patients, I remain completely focused and concentrate on them. I also make sure I leave openings in my schedule to allow for free personal time. That way, I know that I can continue to do what I do indefinitely to prevent burn out.
Instead of allowing myself to get overwhelmed, I try to set up my calendar in a manner that guarantees I can be in peak mental condition all the time, thus insuring that I give the best care I possibly can. I’m 50 years old so I know myself well enough to know what works for me.
To unwind after work hour, Ann and I will often go for a walk around the neighborhood for about 40 minutes. We may go to the gym for some exercise, or out to have something to eat. Our favorite date is going out for a glass of wine, an appetizer, some dessert, and maybe catch a movie. That’s probably been our favorite type of date for the last thirty years.
I think we all need to give ourselves personal time to build up a relaxed, spiritual reservoir so that we can make good choices. To me, good choices are eating right, exercising, taking my wife out, having friends over, laughing and enjoying life—that’s MY relaxation.
Coming from an Asian-Italian background, how did you combine the two worlds when it came to traditional customs, beliefs and holidays?
Since I have a mixed ethnicity, I always had a few problems in the sense of fitting in. I was born in 1965 and there weren’t that many Chinese-Italian people out there back then. Although we’ve come a long way as a society in the sense that people are much more tolerant of interracial marriages today than they used to be, it was a bit difficult for me at times when I was growing up.
I probably chose my profession, because as a kid, I didn’t fit in too well with the world around me. I think that’s one of the reasons I was so drawn to medicine. In medicine, it’s not about skin color, ethnicity, wealth, or socioeconomics. It’s about helping and healing people.
As for holidays and customs, my mom’s father and stepmother lived in New York City. They were vegetarian Buddhists. For Chinese New Year, my step-grandmother would make a traditional Chinese meal, after which we would go into the city and celebrate. When fireworks were still legal, we would light them and throw them at the dragon. I remember how much fun that was.
As for the other side of my family, my dad had a lot of Italian friends—in fact his business was Italian food manufacturing. He worked with a lot of Italians, so we spent most of our time in their environment. New York is very rich in Italian flavor and community, so we got a lot that particular ethnic exposure too.
I still have Italian friends in New York. My grandparents have since passed away, so I’m not as in touch with my Chinese roots these days as I am with my Italian ones.
What is your very first childhood memory?
I remember when I was 3 years old we were moving to the house that would become my childhood home. I remember driving down that block and coming to the house that I would grow up in.
Ok, I just have to ask: When you watch medical movies or TV shows, do you find yourself mentally correcting the inconsistencies?
When I was younger, I used to think about all the things they were doing wrong. Now I simply sit back and enjoy what I see on the screen. I’ve come to understand that they’re just trying to create drama, and I recognize that movies and TV are all about the story.
When I was training to be a resident I used to watch ER—and that was actually a very good show. Michael Crichton was asked to be a consultant on that show because he was a Harvard trained doctor. It was a good series but sometimes it was just too much. To draw viewers, they would try to condense all these improbable situations into a one-hour episode of heightened drama and sensationalism. A lot of it was very real but it was just too intense. I DID enjoy it though. I also used to like M*A*S*H*. I still watch medical shows today because it made people aware of what it’s like to be a doctor, or a doctor in training.
What inspires you to continuously educate yourself and want to learn more? Did you have a mentor?
I think I became a doctor because I wanted to matter to other people. I also think that perhaps childhood pain is the root of my deep desire for my life and my actions to matter.
For me, life is about evolving, learning and constantly getting better and better. I don’t think my motivation to learn can be attributed to any one person. I’ve had excellent teachers and mentors throughout my life, and I feel blessed to have had them, but I don’t think that I can ascribe sole mentorship to any one person.
I think the best way to live is to always improve one’s self. I’m hoping my children have learned that from Ann and me. I pray they will always strive for self-improvement in their lives. I think that the people who don’t try, who don’t aspire to progress, who choose to remain stagnant in their viewpoints—these people become trapped in the belief that they are always right, when in fact, they can be tragically wrong.