As a family physician, I have been blessed to stand witness to the bookends of life. From womb to tomb, it has been an incredible experience to see families bringing life into the world and supporting those who are passing on. We physicians also get to closely observe the journey in between: the shots, the first tooth, the first step, the runny nose, the hospital stay, the developing athlete, the evolving scholar, the budding artist, the graduations, first job, weddings and other major life events. Our patients truly become our extended family.

Last week, I met with a group of medical students who had just spent a month at the end of their first year with family doctors in Texas communities from Manvel to Alpine. They participated first hand working with a family doctor and noted their roles in family lives and in the community. One student talked with awe about how a family came in with three generations who the country doc had delivered. A staff member recalled her visit with her Houston-area family doctor who had done the same.

In the context of the incredible opportunity I have had to be of service to families over the years, I have come to have a deep understanding of their power in health and wellness, in sickness and death.

From the moment a human baby is born, it is highly dependent for its very life on those around it. Instinctively, it reaches out, grasps, nestles, suckles and warms itself in arms that enfold and love it. Without such attachment, the chain of human life could not survive. We are very unlike the sea turtles who lay their eggs and hope the hatchling babies can scramble to the tide before being picked off by predators.

We are born to depend on each other. In medicine, a crucial part of the patient story is their bio-psychosocial history. Physicians are trained to investigate their patient’s biology. Beyond that, the context and fabric of people’s lives, what motivates and energizes them, what brings meaning and joy, strength and support is often just as or even more critical to their health and happiness than merely their physical status. These are the fabric of interdependence that make and keep us well. Without them, we sicken.

As a medical student, I was fascinated by the study of family dynamics in psychiatry and psychology. As an exercise, our small seminar group drew a genealogy chart and discussed the influences both living and deceased family members had on each of us. Like a giant tree whose roots were buried deep in the past, it was amazing how much we depended on and were influenced by those that came before us.

In the end, our real family is the extended network of all those we know and all those they know. In other words, the whole world. Therefore, enjoy, love, appreciate, be kind to and care for all you meet at the beginning of life, its end and in between. That is true happiness.
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.