Our Proust Questionnaire

Plateau PediatricsCrossville, Tennessee

Dr. Suzanne Berman gives us a window into her practice and herself, answering questions from our version of the Proust Questionnaire.

  • Plateau Pediatrics
  • Crossville, Tennessee

A Proust Questionnaire is a survey aimed at understanding one’s personality.

To help share your stories, The Independent Pediatrician created our own version of the Proust Questionnaire.  We hope you enjoy this small window into other pediatricians’ personal and professional challenges and aspirations.

When you began practicing:

August 2001.  My husband (also a pediatrician) and I hung our independent shingle right after finishing residency.  The first day we were open, our three employees and I saw one patient.  I still remember the thrill of overhearing a toddler’s voice babbling to her mother at MY office.

Reason for working with children:

In medical school, my two favorite basic science disciplines were infectious disease and genetics, so pediatrics seemed a natural fit.  The emphasis on prevention and longitudinal care didn’t hurt either.

Your favorite virtue:

Loyalty, always.  More recently, I’ve gained an appreciation for the importance of empathy – that is, trying to see things from others’ points of view. Stories like Rashomon or An Instance of the Fingerpost illustrate well how our natural inclination is to cast ourselves as the hero of the narrative, even if our actual role in the story is pretty small.

Your favorite qualities in a pediatric healthcare provider:

Humility.  If you are doing something incompletely or aren’t up-to-date, you have to be willing to admit it when someone points it out to you.  It’s easier if the relationship is reciprocal, of course.

Your favorite qualities in a patient:

Honesty.  If you don’t like your experience in my office, please tell me, and I can try to make it right.  If you fake-smile and say “Nothing’s wrong,” I’ll take you at your word and then feel bewildered when you flame me on Facebook.

Your favorite hobbies/after hours pursuits: 

I like creating experiential gifts for people: satirical parody songs and videos to commemorate an event, puzzles or themed scavenger hunts for a birthday, etc.  I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy experimenting with new media.   When I simply want to unwind, I play computer games.  There’s something viscerally satisfying about assigning tasks to dwarven minions, who carry out my bidding without arguing.

Your idea of happiness is:

Too many to name, but a lot of them revolve around hearing my family’s voices:  Watching my toddler’s brain myelinate before my very eyes, as he utters a new word for the first time, then claps at his own cleverness.  Hearing my 4-year-old pronounce words that demonstrate his vocabulary has outpaced his articulation skills.  His imagination creates hilarious mashups of various mythoi, like how Heat Wave the RescueBot helps the defense of Minas Tirith.  Hearing my 13-year-old think about his homework in a way that shows he’s really thinking about ideas, and how he makes connections between unrelated things (“How effective was the Cuban Revolution?  More than Les Mis, less than Newsies.”) Listening and trying not to smirk as I hear my husband decimate someone’s illogical ad hominem argument with kindness and wit.

What is your biggest fear? 

Dying before seeing my sons grow up.

With whom you would most enjoy sharing a meal? 

People who like to talk about their work and can make it interesting to the uninitiated.  I’m pretty clueless about how most stuff works, so I’ve learned some incredible things talking to military people, geologists, sound engineers, architects, designers, whoever.  Dinner makes it casual and fun.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Wherever my family is.  Trouble is, they live all over the country.  So maybe what I really need is my own Gulfstream jet, to get back and forth between them all.

Your favorite author(s):

Lois McMaster Bujold, Elizabeth Moon (a fellow Rice alum), and Connie Willis, who write speculative fiction about badass women who are equally courageous with the pen and the sword.

Your favorite musician(s) or style of music:

XM radio in my car is turned to the Broadway channel.  Like much of America, I don’t know how I survived before Hamilton.   I listen to 80’s and 90’s music primarily for nostalgia.  I remember riding around with my friends on humid Houston spring nights in 1988, listening to U2 and Fleetwood Mac on the car stereo, and thinking “High school is awesome.”

Your favorite fictional hero(es):

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan family.  Brave, smart, loyal, and eminently quotable.

Your hero(es) in real life: 

My dad was a petrochemical engineer who had extraordinary analytical gifts.  He could eyeball a stream of complex multidimensional data and pick out errors and evaluate trends.  He was scrupulously honest and incredibly courageous with his convictions; he wasn’t intimidated by money, prestige, or power.  His long term memory was, even among the “brilliant scientist” class, exceptional.  In college, when I neglected to bring home my chemistry reference standards book, he helped me with my homework by quoting the relevant transition metal specific gravities from memory.  Even at the end of his life when he struggled with aphasia, he could still name all the Federal Reserve Banks (in order.)  He died, too young, from PSP (a variant of Parkinson’s disease).   He had a tremendous impact on my life, by inspiration and by example: if he could withstand pressure from powerful factions within Big Oil, I feel empowered to take on a lying insurance company.

Your favorite food and drink: 

As evidenced by my habitus, I don’t turn down a lot of non-favorites!   I’ve been blessed enough to travel to different places and see a lot of cuisines in situ.  The problem is that translating or perpetuating it back home is difficult (especially given that fine dining in my county is Arby’s.)   I’ve always loved tropical fruit.  When I went to Brazil years ago, there was a place you could get fresh pineapple (abacaxi) sliced before your eyes with this big scimitar-looking knife.  It was like eating sunshine.  Ever since then, Dole just hasn’t seemed the same.   I’ve been similarly spoiled for Tex-Mex and Italian food.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? 

I wish I enjoyed exercise more.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement? 

I picked a winner in my husband twenty-two years ago, and like a stock that’s split again and again over the decades, I continue to reap the benefits of his awesomeness.

What are your favorite types of patient visits? 

Any time a kid says something unexpected that makes me laugh.  I also like when little kids draw a picture and then want to tell me about it.  Sometimes it’s like a Tate Gallery lecture about composition and color; other times it’s a narrative of what was going through their mind while they were coloring.

What is the most important work you do as a pediatrician? 

Advocacy for kids, their healthcare, and their pediatricians.  I loathe bullies and red tape.

What is the biggest change in pediatrics you have seen in your career?

In clinical pediatrics, the impact of pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccination.  I used to hate March and April because we had to admit so many dehydrated babies with rotavirus.  The first year after we implemented rotavirus vaccination, I was astounded by the immediate, drastic drop in springtime infant gastroenteritis.   As far as the business of pediatrics, computers are a lot more pervasive now than they were 15 years ago.  Most practices had no website or EMR in 2001, but that’s clearly not the case now.  In 2016, I can mention Excel functions and reports without seeming freakish.

What do you like most about being an independent pediatrician?

I can implement a good idea (or un-implement a bad one) speedily.  I don’t have to convince someone with no time, no interest, and no relevant expertise that it’s a good idea.  The more I see how our community hospital approaches problem-solving and quality improvement, the more I’m glad that so little of my day-to-day work has to be done there.

What does your practice do best?

As far as patient care goes, we have learned how to serve a difficult-to-reach patient population (a rural, underserved, low-income segment of Appalachia) well.  One of our nurse practitioners, Kristel, is the best clinical communicator I’ve ever met.  She can get an accurate history out of almost anyone, and she busts compliance barriers even for people who have no phone and no transportation.   All while being patient and charming, which is not an act – she’s fully genuine.  Our staff members are primarily locals, so they can contribute lots of relevant information to social history: “Oh, I saw that mom and this other guy out at the local redneck watering hole – they’re living together now.”  “Have you tried grandma’s number?  Grandma is also my next-door neighbor and walking buddy.”  We may have been served a lot of lemons, but we can make some amazing lemonade, deodorizers, marinades, pies, and cocktails with all those lemons.

What do you believe is the most important business aspect for an independent pediatric office?

Intellectual curiosity, which keeps your practice innovative.  Learning how stuff works takes time, but it’s an investment that reaps rewards.  Just this week I was talking with a practice manager who didn’t want to invest an hour in learning a new process that would save her two hours a month, every month, in another process.  “It’s too hard to figure out all this new stuff,” she said, “and sometimes it’s just easier to do it by hand.”   Intellectual curiosity (and a strongly-held belief that justice, eventually, will prevail) also helps protect your practice.  It’s so easy to say, “I guess since Company X says we have to do this, and we can’t afford a lawyer, we had better do what they say.”  Substitute a few nouns in there, and that attitude sounds like capitulation to an extortion threat.  Instead, channel your inner preschooler and demand to know why.  Why do we have to do this?  What exactly is “this”?  What happens if we don’t?  No, what REALLY happens if we don’t?  It’s not just rebellion, it’s self-education.  Regardless of the outcome, you’ll learn something interesting.