Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gerald O'Malley, DO: Speed Racer and my small nervous breakdown

Last year I survived my first trial. It was awful. I walked into the whole ordeal like a lamb to the slaughter. I actually thought that my deposition was going to be a pleasant few hours with the doctor and lawyers talking like professionals about the case and then maybe sitting down to a nice lunch together afterwards. I’m actually embarrassed about my naiveté.

The trial was a joke. Basically it was fixed and we lost the case before it even started. I was devastated and disillusioned and depressed. I was ready to give up medicine and do something (anything) else.

Around about the time that the trial was getting started, a movie called Speed Racer opened. I remembered watching the TV show as a kid and I took my 7-year-old son to see the film. The movie was a flop and received terrible reviews, but my son and I enjoyed it. He wanted all the toys and cars and T-shirts, and I bought them for him. My wife bought the soundtrack and we listened to it all summer driving back and forth to the beach and the community pool.
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During the worst summer I can remember, while I swallowed my frustration and thought about what I needed to do to find peace with myself, Speed Racer was everywhere. The commercials, the toys, the posters, and the beautiful, haunting soundtrack all served as a background for a terribly emotional time. I lost sleep and lost weight and shut out my family and friends and tried to find meaning in what happened. I was filled with rage and disappointment and disillusion with medicine. How could something that I loved so much be so corrupted?

The summer became the fall and I gnashed my teeth all night and sleepwalked through the days. My son’s interest in Speed Racer continued. We bought the DVD the day it was released and watched it that night and several more times.

One Friday night, my son asked to watch the movie again, so I made popcorn and we sat and put the movie on. I was half-watching the movie and half-sorting bills when I realized something that I had never noticed during any of my previous viewings of the movie.

During a pivotal scene, the main character (Speed Racer) confronts another character (Racer X), furious at the betrayal of a third character and lashes out at the corruption and unfair corporate nature of the sport. Racer X takes off his mask, revealing his face to Speed and says something like, “It doesn’t matter if racing never changes. What matters is if we let racing change us. You don’t strap yourself into a T-180 to be a racecar driver — you do it because you are driven to do it.”

I began to see the similarities between my own situation and that of Speed and I realized that Racer X was right. Medicine will never change — what matters is if we let it change who we are. We don’t walk into the ER just to be an ER doctor. We are driven to do it.

Maybe enough time had passed and maybe it was a coincidence, but at that moment, sitting on the couch in the dark with my son and a half-eaten bowl of popcorn, for the first time in months, I felt like I was ready to go back to work. I wanted to go back to work.

I apologized to my wife and family and colleagues for my distant and alien behavior, shook off the cobwebs and ennui and gratefully got back to work.

The fall became winter and on Christmas morning, watching my son running around in his Speed Racer slippers, I decided to share my experience with the makers of the film, two brothers named Larry and David Wachowski. I have never written to an actor or a movie director before and I had to ask a medical student for help in finding out their contact information. But I wrote to them, explained my experience with the lawsuit and thanked them for making a thoughtful and fun movie that helped me get through a very dark time in my adult life.

Imagine my surprise several weeks later when I received a call from the Wachowski brothers’ publicist. Apparently the directors were touched by my letter. They sent a huge package of toys and other Speed Racer merchandise for my son and some autographed items which I thought was entirely unnecessary but very, very nice.

I still occasionally have bad days. I filed an ethics complaint with ACEP against the expert witness in the case from last summer, and I won another lawsuit this spring (unanimous jury verdict for the defense — unheard of in this city).

I still struggle with my feelings of anger and frustration, and I’ll detail some of the consequences of the ethics compliant in another post. Who knows why we do the things we do and why we can be affected by things like children's movies? I just know that it feels really great to sit with my son and watch a hero triumph over the bad guys with tenacity and courage. It makes me want to go back to work.

Gerald O'Malley, DO, is the director of research in the largest, busiest emergency department in Philadelphia and an associate professor of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. He’s also the son of a NYC cop, die-hard Yankees fan, and a regular contributor to Practice Notes.


  1. The trial was fixed??? What does that mean? This is America- land of justice. Can you elaborate?

  2. The term "fixed" was an unfortunate choice of words (editorial decision by the blog masters). The original posting described the complex relationship between the plaintiff's attorney, his brother (a US senator) and the judge in the case. The plaintiff's attorney got away with murder during the cross-examination and defense attorneys informed me that the best we could hope for was a reasonable settlement. I guess we did better than that because I was dropped from the case as a requirement of the settlement.