I’ve just read a life-enhancing/affirming, inspiring, highly pertinent and heartwarming autobiography of a man – a family man, a father, a husband, a grandfather, a great grandfather (I’m sure many other relation titles), a doctor, a healer, a carer, a multi-faceted man, a person with the soul, the essence, of great humanity, love and courage.
I knew the author, Dr. Henry Briggs, but not well. He was the father, grandfather etc of friends of mine but even though I had only met him on a few occasions and talked to/with him for 10/15 minutes 3 or 4 times, it was enough to encourage me to not just accept a copy of the book from his family out of respect but to download it onto my kindle and to read it – all of it.
Henry’s family may not agree with my summation of the autobiography but, to me, it’s a love story. It’s tells the story of a man who was in love with being alive or, more precisely, living, in love with/devoted to his family, his patients, to Judaism and to Israel. It is also a story of survival and success against the odds but Henry’s determination to do that, to survive and to succeed, it was all underpinned by these loves.
Henry’s life, the choices he considered, the decisions he made, his attitudes and opinions, it seems to me that they were all informed and moulded by his mind boggling and life shattering experiences as a child growing up in Nazi Europe. I guess, to a lesser or greater extent, we are all affected by our experiences early in life and that they push us in certain directions but it appears to me that Henry made decisions not subconsciously but very much with his childhood experiences in mind.
How could he not have done!
“After the war, in Krakow (Henry was born in 1939), “Poland was in turmoil and living in Krakow became increasingly difficult under the growing shadow of communism. My mother could not find any particular work but was determined to do whatever she could to look after me – as she had always done – so she made a living on the black market. She became, in reality, a smuggler. She went from being a woman used to luxury before the war, enjoying a good life in a town known for its level of education and prosperity, to being a smuggler to make a living”.
One of the lessons I learned on reading this autobiography is how important it is to put into context what people do, say, how they think, their attitudes….put all of this, how they express themselves and the content of the expressions, into the context of their whole life (in as far as we can, ie we might not know the person very well but we shouldn’t make assumptions). Some of Henry’s religious and cultural attitudes did not align with mine and, reading them one dimensionally, without context, one could judge them to be a bit severe/extreme but in the context of his childhood, one should be less judgemental:
(as an adult) “We made a lot of friends in Strathfield that we still have to this day. We were very committed to our children being Jewish and we made a conscious decision to keep only Jewish friends. We didn’t want our children to marry out or mix with anyone to see there was a different life and we didn’t want the conflicts that could possibly arise.”
One could, without the context, wince on reading this but step back, think….Henry lost his father and other relatives in the Holocaust, he, his mother, other family members and friends were chased and hunted throughout 1940’s Europe, hunted by people just because they were Jewish, hunted and, if caught, they’d have been murdered….
The Nazis put Henry’s Judaism in the spotlight, put it into sharp focus for Henry, left him in no doubt as to what and who he was, a Jew, and these murderers wanted to strip him of his Judaism and his life – one can, I can, understand how one reaction to that could be “It’s mine and you aren’t going to take it from me….you want to destroy me, my people, us….well, I’m going to do exactly what you don’t want, I’m going to live my life in a way which reflects defeat for you….I’m going to survive, I’m going to live as a Jew and my children, their children and their children etc etc etc will also live as Jews.” The Nazis threatened Henry and he went into defence-mode, adopted, I guess, a ghetto mentality, he did what he thought he had to do to ensure survival of his family’s Judaism, to ensure it in the way that he thought was best:
“…I believe being Jewish means to be part of a people that has survived through history from sheer tenacity, strength and education…The Nazis failed to destroy the Jewish people, my family included, and we are claiming our rightful place in Israel…”
“….I believe I inherited their (Henry’s parents’) instinct and will to survive…”
Besides family, Henry’s Judaism, his Zionism – his survival and ‘continuity’ – his career, medicine, his dedication and devotion to his patients, that was all informed and guided, the seeds were sewn, not only by his own inherent goodness but by – and here it is again – by his childhood experiences:
“I liked the idea of sitting down with a sick person and I had no problem introducing myself. I didn’t find it particularly daunting because I had the experience from my mother and father and I always had the same empathy towards patients as I had with my parents. When you see suffering close to you, you tend to understand it more in others and I had experienced suffering at a very personal level.”
Henry, it seems to me, was a doctor ahead of his time – he believed in the holistic approach to medicine, ie that one needs to look at/consider the whole body, the mental state of the patient, the lifestyle, diet, sleep, stress etc when considering the diagnostic possibilities of patients when they present with symptoms. The holistic approach is relatively new/young and, as far as I know, is more prevalent amongst younger doctors, not those who are now in their 70’s and 80’s (sorry – generalising!):
“As a physician it’s important to obtain a patient’s whole life story, going back to their grandparents so most of my life has been dealing with people and their family lineage and relationships.”
Henry understood that the health and, just as importantly and in a wider perspective, the wellbeing of his patients demanded a long term (life long) on-going relationship – it was no good talking to them for 5 minutes, prescribing a few aspirins and some antibiotics and seeing the back of them as quickly as possible. Henry didn’t believe in conveyor belt medicine:
“I felt a great sense of achievement seeing my patients on a continuous basis, preventing their second heart attack, treating their heart failure successfully and seeing them feel better with a change of lifestyle and weight reduction.”
“My advertising came from my commitment to my patients’ wellbeing. I dedicated myself to their follow-up care and knew it was vital for their health. It came naturally to me because I modelled myself on the doctors I had known as a child and teenager and offered the same dedication to continuity of care that they provided my parents.”
What came through to me, as I was reading Henry’s book, was how much he cared, cared about people, cared about his patients – that Henry was in it for his patients, that it wasn’t all about ‘ME’, that it wasn’t about self-aggrandisement:
(as a young doctor) “We were given patients to see every day, a list of short cases and long cases, and the tutors taught us how to introduce ourselves, how to start a conversation and how to take histories. But they were all human beings and we had to understand that patients would be revealing their innermost secrets to us so patience and empathy were of utmost importance.”
“I worked with a number of Jewish doctors….Dr Dick Haber and Dr Zelman…Dr Zelman Freeman and Dr Eric Schiller taught me well, giving me a love for internal medicine. These four visiting physicians left a permanent mark on my future in medicine and my desire to care for people with patience, kindness and humility.”
Paragraph 33 of the book:
“ANTI-AGING, HEALTH AND NUTRITION”
– it leads into what was Henry’s professional and personal mission…quality of life and the research, education and propagation of everything he knew on the subject so that his patients could, I guess, stack the odds in their favour, the odds of leading a long and healthy life. I’m sure that Henry knew that, in life, there were no guarantees but he knew (yes, knew, not just believed, he knew) that there’s so much we can do to stack those odds in our favour, eg eat well – eat properly – exercise, get sufficient quality sleep, avoid stress….
Examples of Henry’s belief in the importance and place of food/the right ‘diet’ in one’s life:
Henry writes of a conference (one, I’m sure, of many) he attended on the subject of, ‘How to improve health by nutrition and natural therapies and treatments’ – he sat in on a talk “about the treatment of pancreatic cancer, which is nearly always deadly and fairly aggressive in most cases. The panel presented 12 patients that had terminal cancer and who had looked for alternative treatments. They had found a group of doctors experimenting with a high dosage of curcumin, a natural substance also known as turmeric that is common in the Indian diet, combined with Celebrex, a very potent anti-inflammatory agent given for arthritis of various types. With this massive anti-inflammatory dose, the patients’ lives were improved and certainly prolonged by holistic treatment.”
These conferences showed me what could be done with natural preventative medicine in the treatment of terminal disease. They showed me you don’t have to rely on statins and other drug treatment and that a good natural diet consisting of vegetables and fruit can reverse coronary disease…”
Henry was living proof that his mission was based on reality, that it was not mere puffery:
“…I ate a lot of potatoes, green peppers and tomatoes, which are part of the nightshade family of vegetables and now known to aggravate arthritis. When I eliminated them from my diet to understand if they could be part of my arthritic problem, I found the arthritis in my knuckles practically disappeared, as did Miriam (I think Henry means that Miriam found the same thing, not that she also “practically disappeared”!), and she could more easily move her rings over her knuckles.”
As I said, Henry must have known that he could not offer his patients guarantees of a long and healthy life, that he could only direct them as to how to stack the odds in their favour and, of course, he was telling them how they should lead their lives in order that they’d – hopefully – have a healthy life even if not a long one, even if the grim reaper had them in his diary for an early visit.
Henry was in great shape, felt great, looked great, until just a few weeks ago when he was diagnosed with advanced, terminal pancreatic cancer – the race was on! He had to finish writing his autobiography and his patients were uppermost in his mind (with his family, of course!) – if you get your hands on Henry’s book, you’ll read the letter he wrote to his patients after he got his diagnosis, when he was aware of the prognosis. It says so much about Henry but I won’t spoil your reading of the book by saying any more about it, nor will I write anything about Henry’s final weeks with his family – buy the book, read it, it is so moving and illustrative of what made this great man tick.
You do not need to have met or known Henry for the reading of this autobiography to be fascinating, useful, an eye-opener, inspiring…. The lessons Henry imparts are relevant regardless of whether you knew him or not! As I wrote at the start of this blog review, I didn’t know Henry particularly well but one thing is for sure, that having read his autobiography, I feel that I know him a lot more now than I did before I read it.
Two things are for certain: that I shall continue to have
Henry – “Persistence, loyalty, completion of tasks and sticking to one’s convictions are extremely important values to me” – Briggs
in my mind and in my thoughts as I strive to keep those odds stacked in my favour and one of my missions will be to propagate his lessons, to spread the message:
“Hey, everyone, Henry said……!!!”