October 21, 2018

Physician’s new book ‘Rhythms’ reveals The Personal Side of Medicine

Dr. Francine Kaufman is one of the world’s leading pediatric endocrinologists. She has been a crucial figure in stemming the tide of juvenile obesity and was instrumental in banning sodas from Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2005, she published “Diabesity: The Obesity-Diabetes Epidemic That Threatens America — and What We Must Do to Stop It.” The recipient of numerous honors and awards and the author of more than 200 scientific articles, Kaufman is chief medical officer and vice president of global clinical, medical and health affairs at Medtronic Diabetes. She also serves on the faculty at USC and at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where she continues to see patients. 

Kaufman recently has written “Rhythms,” a debut novel that explores love and secrets, caring for a dying parent and the complexities of a life in medicine. What follows is an edited conversation with her.

Naomi Levy: Looking at your bio, which doesn’t even represent all of your myriad achievements, my first question is: Where in the world did you find the time to write a novel?

Francine Kaufman: My biggest drive every day is not to waste time, and the older I get, the less time I want to waste. 

NL: Give me the typical Dr. Francine Kaufman day.

FK: I get up and go to work, and work is a lot of travel now. I am employed by Medtronic Diabetes to be their chief medical officer. On Tuesdays, I go to Children’s Hospital to see patients. The weekends, [my husband Neal and I] probably work maybe a full eight hours or longer, play, see our friends. … I have a legal pad in a binder, and every day I write what I’m going to do that day; there is [also] a place for the weekly goals and then my long-term goals. For me, probably the most pleasurable thing is to cross something off my to-do list. 

NL: What motivated you to write this book?

FK: My mother lived with us and died here in this house. So, although the character in the book wasn’t my mother at all, the physical part of watching your mother die in your house … I wanted to write about that because I thought it was so all-consuming, so raw. There were parts of that experience when I would think, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” Other parts were so tender. She lived with us for 15 years. We were her whole social network. People would say, “Why do you have her there?” I felt it was her place as much as ours. My husband was amazing with her. 

But she was European and I always felt there’s just some part of her I don’t know, that she’s got some kind of secret. I’m actually fascinated with secrets in general. I mean, we all have secrets and they, in part, shape us. And my job as a doctor is to get through everybody’s secrets so that I can understand what’s happening with their health — are they really taking their medication? For some kids, some of them are carrying deep, dark secrets. I tried to portray that through a character in the book as well, which was totally fictitious. 

NL: Something I took from the book was that the challenge for a woman like you, or all women who are trying to balance career, marriage, motherhood, loyalty to our own parents — how does one do it?

FK: You know, we’ve lived this fast, frenzied pace. This is actually the first time we’ve lived here alone. We’ve been here since 1980, and last year was the first time I’ve lived alone. We had my mom living here, our kids, one of my brothers, one of Neal’s sisters, and just lots of people coming in and out. And the Cherise character in the book is based on a true story. We took one of my patients who was about 18 to live with us and I actually wanted to describe what that was like, to make a blink decision to bring somebody in like that to be part of your life.

NL: Did you make it in the split second, the way it is described in the book?

FK: I did.

NL: Without asking your husband?

FK: I did.

NL: And did you fear, “Oh my God, what have I done?” or you just knew in your guts this was going to work out?

FK: Well, I knew. I guess what I didn’t realize is that it’s really long term. He was a patient I had cared for, and he was great. He was a great addition to our family. He ended up marrying this wonderful Swedish woman and they had two kids and they came back to live with us for another 10 years.

NL: With the two kids?

FK: Yes. And then there is a [young woman who] lived with us.

NL: Another patient?

FK: Yes. Her parents wouldn’t let her go to college. Her father didn’t see a reason why she should. She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school. So she came and lived with us to go to college, and she was wonderful. And now she’s waiting for her second baby, and she’s like our kid as well.

NL: Most people say it in theory — “I would love to welcome some needy person or some person in trouble into my life” — but most people don’t do it.

FK: Well, [the young man] went to college part-time and he did help with [our] kids. So it was a mutual deal. He gave a lot to us. I think my kids view him as a sibling in some ways. We are still very involved with them. 

NL: What parts of your novel are based on real life, and what parts are imaginary?

FK: None of the patients are real. What exactly happened those last few days with my mother’s life wasn’t what happened. I wanted to portray some of the aspects of how tough academic medicine can be. I tried to portray a lot of the emotions I’ve had as a physician, as a mother, as a person living on the planet, all through made-up situations.

NL: What centers you?

FK: My husband. We’ve been married 43 years and I’ve never seen him do a bad thing to anybody or say a bad thing about anybody. And he’s just an honest, hardworking
guy who wants to make the world a better place.

Rabbi Naomi Levy is spiritual leader of Nashuva, and the author of “Hope Will Find You” and “Talking to God.”