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Reflections on a Recent Trip to Lithuania and the Global Family of Physicians

Joseph S. Alpert

Joseph S. Alpert, MD

My wife and I recently returned from a trip to Vilnius, Lithuania. It was my third trip there and her second. Each time we have gone to Lithuania, we have been made to feel like members of our host’s family. Here is the story that led to our current close personal and professional friendships in Lithuania.

First, a bit of background. My maternal and paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Lithuania in the latter half of the 19th century, with my mother’s family coming first sometime after the end of the Civil War and ending up in Pittsburgh. The Alpert branch of the family came later in the 19th century and settled in New Haven, Conn. According to documents discovered by our family genealogist, the Alpert family in Lithuania can be traced back as far as the 17th century to a small town in southwest Lithuania, where they would have had serial rights to live. During that era Jews were not allowed to own land, so that all families derived their livelihood by working at various trades, such as blacksmith, woodworker, inn keeper, beer brewer, baker, butcher, and so forth. Over the years, the Jewish population in Lithuania thrived, and it is said that Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, became the foremost European center for Jewish intellectual and cultural life, with many scholars, artists, authors, and publishers, as well as many institutions of education and study. At one point in the 19th century, it is reported that almost half of the population of Lithuania were Jews.

A number of years ago at a dinner given at an international cardiology meeting, I fortuitously met Pranas Serpytis, a professor of cardiology in Lithuania, as well as his son Rokas, who was also a cardiologist. When I told them about my Lithuanian ancestors, Pranas immediately told me that I would soon receive an invitation to come and speak at their biannual acute cardiac care meeting in Vilnius and that they would personally take me to the villages where my ancestors had once lived. Indeed, this did happen.

Lithuania is a small nation with only 3.1 million inhabitants, and Pranas has patients throughout the country. Everywhere we went, doors were opened, and we were warmly greeted and taken in. Food was prepared, and at one home they even wanted us to stay for a sauna! The retired librarian of the town museum where my mother’s family originated filled the luncheon table with homemade meats, smoked fish, pickles, bread, and more, and hovered over us just like my paternal grandmother did when she was feeding us in New Haven! Both ladies were convinced that we had not eaten enough!

During all of my visits to Lithuania, I have had a recurring sense of being at home and a member of the Serpytis family, even though I could not speak the language. The food and the culture were familiar—no surprise given that what we think of as “Jewish food” in the United States is really Baltic food, something that I discovered decades ago when I lived in Denmark. The doctors and many other Lithuanians that I met at the cardiology conferences were as genuine, kind, open, and honest as any group of people that I have ever encountered. During my first and subsequent trips to Lithuania, Pranas Serpytis and his family cared for us as if we were cousins. I was always introduced as one of their own, and indeed that is how I felt. It was a remarkable and highly emotional experience for me, repeated during each of my subsequent visits to Lithuania. My wife, Qin, who was born in China, felt the same emotional bonding with the Serpytis family, as well as with many other Lithuanians attending the acute cardiac care meeting.

During my visits to Lithuania and on many other trips to medical events around the world, I usually feel a similar sense of connectedness with the physicians at the meeting. Perhaps this is the result of our universal medical training, which emphasizes that, as physicians, we belong to a brotherhood/sisterhood dedicated to serving. This concept of physicians bonding and working together was, of course, a central tenet of the Hippocratic school that practiced medicine on the Greek island of Kos more than 2500 years ago. At that time, physicians often practiced within the confines of a temple usually dedicated to Aesculapius, the god of healing; in essence, they were a priesthood serving patients in the name of that Greek god. Indeed, it has been suggested that even today physicians are still functioning in a combined role as doctor and priest.1 In a similar vein, I often feel that, as doctors, we relate to one another like members of a large and caring family. It makes me proud to be a member of a profession that emphasizes care, love, and respect for other human beings regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. I often tell my trainees that they have been very fortunate in choosing one of the best jobs on the planet.

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-Joseph S. Alpert, MD (Editor in Chief, The American Journal of Medicine)

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of The American Journal of Medicine.

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