Zibby Owens: Hi.

Dr. Michele Harper: Hi. How are you? Good, it worked.

Zibby: Sorry, am I late?

Michele: No, it’s fine. I just wanted to make sure I was in the right place.

Zibby: You’re in the right place. I was early. Then my daughter just — now she’s bleeding. Anyway, she’s fine.

Michele: Oh, no.

Zibby: I was early. I was ready. Then she came in. She scraped it on some staple. It’s always something. How are you? Thank you for your direct message. That was so nice of you. Thank you.

Michele: I’m sorry.

Zibby: I wish you were our doctor. Oh, my gosh, anyway, this podcast is very casual, informal. I want to just get to know you even more than I was able to get to know you through your book and read a few quotes from your book and all that good stuff. It should take about a half an hour. Enjoy. Relax.

Michele: It’s audio, right? I didn’t dress up for this.

Zibby: Sometimes we do like a minute clip. I don’t have to if you don’t want me to. You look great.

Michele: Oh, I didn’t know that. Damn it, sorry.

Zibby: No, it’s okay. We’ve been doing more just to help promote the episode, like a clip on social or something like that. If you don’t want me to, I won’t do it.

Michele: I guess whatever you want. I just feel badly. I totally would’ve gotten dressed.

Zibby: You look amazing. Who gets dressed up these days? It’s up to you. You can think about it and we can talk. I could show you the clip before we post it and you tell me if you want us to or not.

Michele: Okay, thank you.

Zibby: Welcome, Michele. Can I call you Dr. Harper? I feel bad calling you Michele.

Michele: Whatever you want is fine.

Zibby: Welcome, Michele. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Michele: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I am so excited to discuss this beautiful memoir which was so good. Oh, my gosh, I just loved it. As soon as I started reading it, I was emailing your publicist. I have to talk to her. It’s so well-written and so great. Thank you for joining me. Would you mind telling listeners who don’t know what The Beauty in Breaking is about, what your memoir’s really about? Also, would made you write a memoir?

Michele: It is a memoir. It’s about me and difficulties I overcame growing up in an abusive household with a batterer as a father. It’s my journey to healing. It’s also interwoven between patient stories. Each chapter is one or two patient’s names. It explores their own journey to healing in their lives. The reason I wrote this was because, for me, I resonate more with the healing process and being a healer more than any specific title, so more than being a doctor specifically. I find that in the ER I can help potentially one patient at a time, one family at a time, maybe one community at a time, but with writing, so much more, people throughout the state, the country, the world. That appealed to me. I thought, this is another way for me to use a different platform to demonstrate our interconnectedness as human beings and support healing for people in other locations.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I’m really glad you did. I just wanted to start by reading this beautiful quote which sort of explains the naming of your book. You wrote, “From childhood to now, I have been broken many times. I suspect most people have. In practicing the Japanese art of kintsukuroi, one repairs broken pottery by filling in the cracks with gold, silver, or platinum. The choice to highlight the breaks with precious metals not only acknowledges them, but also pays tribute to the vessel that has been torn apart by the mutability of life. The previously broken object is considered more beautiful for its imperfections. In life too, even greater brilliance can be found after the mending.” I loved that. I’m assuming this whole theory is how you named your book. Tell me about how this theory has played out in your life.

Michele: It’s true. That’s how I named the book. It resonates with me in life in general because I feel that part of the deal of being human is that there will be challenges. There just will in life. Then the question is, not will something painful or something that feels untoward or something that could wrench us apart, but how we meet that moment and how we come through it and how we are on the other side of it. I believe that in coming through it we can be stronger, more resilient. Then for me, of course, the most important thing is then we can contribute in a more powerful, meaningful way to life in general and help other people.

Zibby: Which is of course the most powerful thing you can do as a human being anyway. Perfect. One of the things you did in this book that was so interesting, which you just mentioned, is how you weave in all the different stories. You’ll go from yoga class to gunshot wounds. We’re all over the place here. You’re sitting on the couch and then trying to get a tube down a baby’s throat. I’m like, where are we here? What chapter am I on? Do I have to be sitting forward on the edge of my seat, or can I relax in one of your chapters where you’re doing your busy work at home? One of the things you mention is that when you’re waiting for a patient to come into the ER, oftentimes you’ll hear a story first. You don’t want to get wrapped up in the story. You said the luxury of just being in the moment, of doing our job without getting tangled up in the story of the job is a luxury, really, but most of the time you hear what it is ahead of time. Tell me a little bit about this and knowing what it does when you know, when you hear it, when the EMS teams calls and says that such-and-such is on the way, how you prepare yourself for things like that. I feel like it sort of encapsulates things in life. It’s all a metaphor. This whole book, I feel like, is a metaphor for everything bigger. Tell me about that, please.

Michele: It’s true. If there’s a potentially critical patient coming in, we’ll get a notification often. They might say, baby with a seizure coming in, unresponsive, might need intubation, something along those lines. We’ll get the rooms ready. If I’m the provider on who’s going to get the case, I’ll try and tidy up my other work so I can drop everything and go to this patient. The benefit is that we may be able to prepare. The downside is it can bias us. Maybe that’s not at all what’s coming in. It might not be an infant. It could be a trauma and not just a medical case. In some ways, it can lead us from being really prepared to take care of the patient because we might not consider aspects of the case that happen. You’re right, that applies not only in the ER, but in life in general, and for me, to maintain an open mind and not get carried away with my biases that could influence my work. I speak about such a case, various examples, but one in particular. A patient came in. It said he had a hemorrhoid. He was fine. He was stable. I reviewed the vital signs. Then an alert came up on the board when I was reviewing the electronic record that he had been violent in the past. He had assaulted a female physician who was taking care of him, sexually assaulted her.

Of course, that made my blood boil, that in the act of this woman taking care of him, trying to save him from an infection that could’ve been life-threatening, that he chose to assault her in that moment. Then of course, my blood was boiling too because it was described in this just casual way. She put down her knife and walked away. Then a man finished the procedure. When I read his record, he was stable according to everything documented by the nurse. I was like, you know what, I’m going to make coffee. He can wait for me to make coffee. I’ll stir in the sugar grain by grain and enjoy this terrible coffee that was sitting in the ER for probably eight hours. I came back. Maybe it was just a couple minutes later. I felt that he was fine to wait. Other patients might come in, and they shouldn’t wait. When I saw the patient and examined him, I realized he wasn’t coming in with a hemorrhoid at all and actually had an incarcerated hernia. It’s a technical term, but it’s a surgical emergency. He needed to go to the operating room.

I told that case because he is not a sympathetic character. What he did was awful. Also, it wasn’t relevant to the moment of me seeing him. While he needed to be held accountable and while the hospital needed to be held accountable also to take care of their staff and not enable abuse of their staff, my job in that moment because I really didn’t know him or what had happened was to deliver the best care possible. I wanted to show how it was important for me to hold myself accountable in that way as well. He did fine. I took care of him. Interestingly enough, the two surgeons who were on were also women and took care of him. I thought, did he think about that? I don’t know he had grown since then. I don’t know if he was in therapy. I don’t know if anything had changed the course of his life or understanding. I wondered if he thought about that. I wondered if somehow that changed him. I knew that the only way that he or I or any of us would grow is if we were open and sensitive to the understanding in that moment. If I could have compassion for him and if he could have compassion enough for himself, then we could all be better for it.

Zibby: Wow. You also talk about, in the book, this ethics case, essentially, that comes in when you had a bunch of white policemen bring in a black man. They were trying against his will to get him to get all his — they thought he had swallowed drugs. It was this whole big mess. Instead of insisting on the medical exam per the police, you, in your badass way that you have as I can tell from this book, just went in and calmly, you looked him in the eye and you asked him some questions. Then you told everybody, no, we cannot do this. You can’t force somebody to do something against your will. Tell me a little more about that moment and what it’s like just to have even the person that you trained sort of questioning you and all this systemic stuff that gets mixed in with medical care.

Michele: Yeah, constantly. The police wanted me to force this exam on him, which is unprofessional, unethical, and illegal because he was competent. I don’t know if he swallowed drugs or not. It also didn’t matter because he was competent and sober and didn’t want to be examined. The right thing to do was to discharge him from the emergency department, which I did. Meanwhile, the person I was training, the resident, had called what she deemed a higher-authority, hospital ethics and legal department, to see if she could go around me to get this done anyway. The hospital said, no, you actually can’t because she’s right. If you do that, it would be illegal and that would be bad for everyone. She said, okay, they said you’re right. Then she just went on with her business. What was very important for me in telling that was to show how, yes, as we’re seeing now with the protests and movements for justices, that there are definitely issues with systemic racism in the police department. We also have their them in our own house, in the house of medicine, and demonstrating how we’ve been complicit and how it takes tremendous acts of courage to stand up against these institutions, but it can be done. In that one case, it was effective. We have to continue these movements if we want progress to happen. That was just one story. You’re right. It happens all the time. It is exhausting. My hope is that in telling these stories it will empower other people to act as well.

Zibby: You also illustrated how you were passed over for a promotion that you completely deserved. The hospital, not only did not promote you to the job that you deserved, they left it open, which is the worst thing ever.

Michele: It gets worse. It gets worse than that.

Zibby: Go on. Tell me.

Michele: I was the only one to apply for that position. My boss had called me. It was an administrative position in the hospital. He said, “I’m so sorry. You were super qualified.” He told me point blank, “This hospital just never promotes women or people of color, and so they always leave. I hope you’ll stay on with us. I hope you’ll stay anyway.” I did leave. You’re right. I was the only applicant. They left it open. I found out shortly after my leaving they did hire someone for it. It was a white male nurse.

Zibby: What do you with all that? How do you process that feeling? I would be so pissed off. How do you just hand in your resignation and start a job somewhere else without that lingering?

Michele: It lingers in the way that I don’t forget, clearly, because I put it in the book.

Zibby: It figures. We’re talking about it today.

Michele: Exactly. I process it because the only option for me is to move forward. I think about how to navigate these structural issues that we talked about, this structural sexism and racism, the list goes on, homophobia and rights for people who have different levels of physical ability. How does one process that? The only option for me is to keep moving forward. The way I tackle the system will vary depending on the circumstance. In that one instance, for example with the job, I decided it was best for me to just leave. They had already had a lawsuit. Clearly, it didn’t really change much. One picks her battles. In this case, I figured I would leave, but my work would continue fighting for equality and justice. Part of that is speaking openly, shedding light on these issues, which can take tremendous risk. That’s come up in interviews before. How are you doing this? What if there’s backlash? It’s true. There can be backlash. There’s a place now for truth-tellers. Now in this time, it’s more important than ever. I started writing this book years ago. If I had to estimate, maybe six years ago. I had no idea it would come out during a pandemic, after the Me Too movement had started, during Black Lives Matter. I had no idea. The personal risk I was anticipating was even greater. Now as it happens, this is the time it comes out, which has created a softer landing. I’m actually grateful because there’s more of a space. People are a little more open to talk about it now and to act.

Zibby: Tell me about the six years of writing this book. Tell me about the moment when you said, you know what, I’m going to try this, I’m going to sit down, and you opened up your computer or whatever. What was that like?

Michele: These stories had been percolating since residency. It started where I would see patients, and their experiences would just stay with me. This is back in residency, so this is over fifteen years ago, fourteen years ago. I’m dating myself. They would just stay. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I know that I had to process them, tell them, and amplify these voices. Around six years ago, I said, okay, now it’s time. I want to start writing. Since I work shifts, I couldn’t make classes. I really wanted to enroll in literature class. I figured I’d work on my writing that way, but I couldn’t. I found someone who could do some private instruction with writing. I said, you know what, if I’m going to pay for this and we’re going to meet weekly, I might as well start. A couple weeks in I said, I should just start working on my book. That’ll be my personal project, to write my book. That’s how it began. I just figured it out as I went along. Once I was done, I said, now I have a book. I guess I should try and do something with it. Met with a literary consultant, because I had no idea, who advised, “Yeah, I think it’s good enough. You should try and get it traditionally published.” Then I was rejected by agents for maybe a year and a half. Of course, it always happens this way. I was about to give up. Then my current agent took the book and believed. I’m so grateful that she believed. Then within a month, it sold at auction. Then I edited for another year, around eight months. Now we have a book. That was the process.

Zibby: Wow, what a journey. Oh, my gosh.

Michele: I had no idea. This is lifetimes. As an ER doctor, years and years, I’m like, I can save a life in three hours. This book took six years.

Zibby: It’s not for the faint of heart, to write try to get it published. It’s quite a road. That just goes to show, you just can’t give up. I’m so glad you didn’t. I bet those first slew of agents are just kicking themselves right now.

Michele: It’s interesting. You’re right. Another story I really like to tell is one — most of the times, the rejection came in the form of silence. Some of the agents were so kind. They would write and they’d say, “This is a really great project. It’s just not what I do. Someone else should represent this who can do it justice.” Then one woman — I wish I had kept the email. I was going through a difficult period of my life at one point. Then I thought the book also wouldn’t work, so I didn’t think to keep her email. I remember I was walking down the street and I heard from one agent in California. I figured I would never hear from her again because I think I wrote her maybe six months before. I get an email on my phone. I’m walking down the street because I was clearing my head. I like to take walking meditation walks.

I opened it up. I was kind of excited because it started as, “I’m so sorry. I meant to get back to you sooner.” Then she continued to say, “But I wanted to make sure to write you to just let you know that we already have doctors writing.” She proceeded to name three men. I had never heard of one of them and vaguely the other, and none of them from underrepresented groups of color. She’s like, “We already have these doctors writing, so we don’t need your book. I just wanted to let you know that.” That was the email. I was furious that this woman went out of her way and took her time to tell me to stop what I’m doing because my voice is not needed. I remember thinking, this is just fuel. Oh, I’m going to get it done. She’s going to hear about this book. At this point, I’m sure she has. It’s a sweet moment.

Zibby: You have to wrap up a copy and FedEx it to her door and be like, here it is. I’m terrible. That makes me sound spiteful and awful. You shouldn’t do that. We should just joke about doing it, but don’t actually do it.

Michele: I won’t do it. Hopefully, she does remember and thinks twice before she tries to kill someone else’s dream. That’s my hope.

Zibby: That’s also the challenge with almost not taking things personally in this literary craziness because they could just say, okay, medical books, check. Then they’re not like, oh, this interesting new voice. It’s like, that book is filled. Now we need a rockstar. Now we need an addiction novel. It’s a challenge. Let’s talk about divorce for a minute if you don’t mind. I’m divorced. I’m always happy to talk about people who have gotten through divorce. Your parents got divorced. My parents got divorced. Let’s get all divorced.

Michele: Oh, I know.

Zibby: You wrote really beautifully about the future that wasn’t, which is something that I think so many of us have to grapple with. You see your life, and not just with divorce honestly, but you just see your life going in a certain way with all of the things that that comes with. Then all of a sudden, you come to a screeching halt. Not just what’s going on now stops, but all the things that were to follow also stop. Just talk to me a little about that and how that pervaded your life for a while and how you got over it or any of it.

Michele: The divorce, we were together — this is funny. We met at the freshman ice cream mixer, that’s what it was called, in college. We grew up together, really. Then before graduation from residency, I found out that the marriage was going to end. He said he couldn’t be with me anymore, that I was on my life path. It seemed that I would be successful. I was graduating from residency and was going to be a doctor. His road was more challenging. He was interested in documentary film and pursuing the arts, which is a more difficult road. It’s not linear. He said since I was doing well and he wasn’t, he couldn’t handle it, so we’d have to go our separate ways. In that moment when he said that, I feel that everyone can make their own decisions. I don’t take hostages. If he couldn’t be with me, then he couldn’t. I knew it was over. I wish him the best. It was painful. I also knew that it was triggering something much more painful than had to do with him at all. I needed time to process that. What I really was grieving was this loss of a story I had for our future. I thought we would continue together. We would have kids. I focused on my career, finishing my career, so kids would happen later. I just took it for granted. We were going to be this fantastic chic couple. I was this doctor. He was a documentary film artist. We were going to have the coolest kids and the greatest life.

That’s what I was grieving. Even deeper than that, being a person who grew up in a dysfunctional home where there was so much pain and suffering and trauma and violence, including physical violence, the relationship with my ex-husband was the healthiest relationship I had with a man. I wanted a healthy family. I wanted to bring that to the world. I grieved that more than any of it. The moment that I understood that, that I could heal from it, I let my ex-husband go, and quite peacefully so. I believe that I allowed myself to open up, as Joseph Campbell, I don’t know if he was the only one to say it, but I let go of the life that I had and this idea of a life that didn’t even exist to let myself open up to the life that was waiting for me. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that the only way for me to live with integrity was to be willing to accept what was happening and what was yet to come. That was a really important story for me to talk about because what I’ve found in my own life and working with patients and family members and friends is that we get so imprisoned by these stories in our mind. So much liberation comes from just letting them go and letting them be and living.

Zibby: That was awesome. I love that. What’s the two-second, since the book ended, what’s happened with you? Now I want the update. Now I’m invested. I’m going to stalk you. No, I’m kidding. I feel like after you go through someone’s whole life for a while, you need the PS. What’s happened since? What’s coming next? What’s the rest for you?

Michele: I don’t know. What’s happened since is, honestly, it was a while to get the book out, and I worked on it tirelessly. Now the book is out. Now it’s been a whirlwind. Literally, I work my shifts. When I’m not doing shifts, then I’m speaking to fun, interesting, cool people like you. It’s actually a blast. So far, it’s been like, every day I’m off, then I schedule time when I can eat dinner or maybe clean or something. That’s really how it’s been. Thinking about what’s next on this literary path, some interesting conversations around film and TV. The moment I have time to consider it, I do want to think about future writing. I have an essay that should be coming out I’m super excited about soon. Books also, I want to think about. It’s really interesting. I’m not going to say how I end the memoir for whoever hasn’t read it, but I do speak about what we’ve already talked about, how an important part for me in my spiritual path and life path is becoming comfortable with uncertainty and just not knowing. The true answer is, I don’t know what’s happening next. I have all these ideas about potential projects. Now I have to see which seeds take root first. It’s fascinating for me because on my medical path, it was really easy. You do steps X, Y, Z. It takes you in this direction. If you want to go a different direction, you follow this path. This is different. I have no idea. Again, this is not linear. It’s exciting. We’ll see. I know it’ll be interesting. That’s actually the only thing I know.

Zibby: I’ll just keep stalking you. You’ll have to open your blinds one day and .

Michele: Right now, I’m in a high-rise. It’ll be a little challenging.

Zibby: Like Spiderman. I’m kidding. I’ll just follow you on Instagram. Then I’ll leave you alone. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Michele: Yes. That is the tenacity. That is just to write about what moves you. Write the story that has to be told. Write the story that is calling you. Then have bravery in doing it. One thing that I — it’s probably cliché. One thing that I experienced was, I worked with tremendous editors. I love my editor at the publisher. He’s so wonderful. Even in working with him or my literary whisperer, there were times, maybe twenty percent of the time, when I said, nope, this is the way this part of the story has to be told. I can’t give up this part of the story. This is the part I love. It’s true to me. Eighty percent of what you said is completely correct. I am a better human for it. This is a better book for it. But this twenty percent’s got to stay. It always worked out well that way. I feel like we both won when we did that. I would say know what is true for you. Stick by it. Just keep going. Don’t give up because there are people who will try and tell you your voice isn’t needed. I am here to tell you, especially women, people of color, other people who are traditionally silenced, we specifically need your voices. Please keep going.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you. Thank you so much, Michele or Dr. Harper, .

Michele: Thank you. It’s wonderful hanging out with you.

Zibby: You too. Let’s do it again. Anytime you’re around. I’ll be on the couch.

Michele: I’m going to have to remember, every time now I have Zoom, I am dressing appropriately because you never know.

Zibby: You look great. I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s not like you’re in your jammies or anything. Stop it. Sometimes I literally wear my pajamas and do these interviews. I’m like, well, they’re sweatpants, so nobody knows. Now that’s the problem. My sleepwear has become so similar to my day wear. I don’t know if it’s day or night. All to say, I can’t see your full ensemble, but from this angle you look great.

Michele: Thank you. I’m about to do yoga. It’s yoga clothes. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Have a great day.

Michele: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Michele: Bye.