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Shedding Light on Medical and Spiritual Questions

July 05, 1993|JACK SMITH

Inevitably, I have received some flak over my columns on my recent heart attack and subsequent experiences. I have promised to put all that behind me but, as usual, I am inclined to give honest complaints a hearing.

Leo A. Gordon, a surgeon, writes that his "sorrow (over my ordeal) is compounded by the realization that years of journalistic excellence have not sensitized you to the power of the headline. . . . I would estimate that 3% to 5% of the elective surgery in the city of Los Angeles was at best canceled and at worst made more difficult for all involved because of the headline 'A Routine Surgery Becomes Something Worse.' "

Surgeons take great pains, he pointed out, to reassure their patients before they go under the knife. "We work hard at putting the patient at ease before surgery. We also take great pains to explain that no surgery is routine. Picture the preoperative holding area as the morning patients arrive, reading the Los Angeles Times. What comfort, trust and peace of mind they experienced as they read your headline!"

First, though it is irrelevant to Dr. Gordon's complaint, that was not my headline. On a large newspaper, authors of news stories, feature articles or columns never write their headlines. That is done by copy editors, who are especially skilled at headlines. I haven't written a headline for 30 years. I never complain about a headline. Generally they are excellent.

I used to have a copy editor, Jean Wudke, now retired, who was so clever and took such pains with each headline that readers often commented, "The heads are better than the columns," which they often were.

Specifically, Dr. Gordon complains about the word routine , making the point that no surgery is routine. The headline writer is blameless. That word came from my column. I said I had gone into the hospital for "what I supposed would be routine prostate surgery" and emerged (after an unscheduled heart attack) a basket case.

I'm sure Dr. Gordon is right, that no surgery is routine. By the way, my surgery, as far as I know, was successful. From the marks on my abdomen, I see that it was not routine.

As for Dr. Gordon's estimate that 3% to 5% of the operations scheduled for that morning were either canceled or made more difficult by that headline sounds like a statistic from outer space. I doubt that that many patients read the View section of The Times while awaiting surgery.

A far more entertaining complaint comes from a reader who excuses himself for not signing his or her name. He (if I may use the generic) begins with a routine expression of sympathy, then wheels into an astonishing rebuke.

"I've been enjoying your writings for many years, but I never realized before that you are Jewish until you mentioned your rabbi in this column.

"Why do you feel the need to hide your Jewishness behind the so-ordinary name of Smith? I can understand of course that many people with difficult Russian or Polish Jewish names feel the need to simplify the names instead of having to spell them out to people all the time. . . ."

I have to believe this reader is not joking, since he chooses to remain anonymous. Evidently his misbegotten inference derives from my reference to Rabbi Alfred Wolf as my "spiritual adviser."

If I were indeed Jewish, and wished to conceal it, or simply wished to discard a difficult name, I could certainly think of a better one to hide behind than Jack Smith. Actually I have always felt rather anonymous. I have fancied being called Geoffrey Crownshield or Muhammad Ali. I think they fit my image better than Jack Smith.

It is possible that this reader thinks a Gentile would not choose a rabbi as a spiritual adviser. Why not? Since I am not religious, I am not bound by religious prejudices, one way or the other. I choose the man, not the faith.

Even a pagan may be in need of spiritual advice, and I chose Rabbi Wolf because I know him to be a man of probity, learning, sound judgment and spiritual reach. (It was Rabbi Wolf, as I have said, who suggested "YHEE OR" for my personalized license plates. It means "Let there be light" in Hebrew.)

Rabbi Wolf is also prominent in the ecumenical movement, which seeks to remove prejudice among different religious faiths. I take that, from his attitude toward me, to mean that he bears me no ill will because of my agnosticism. Infidels need spiritual guidance too.

Finally, if I were Jewish I would certainly not wish to conceal it. We are not living in Nazi Germany. Come to think of it, if I can't be Geoffrey Crownshield, I'd rather like to be Albert Einstein. Now there's a name to conjure with.

You could call me Bert.

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