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Road Trip

Border Crossings: A Spiritual Journey in Medicine
by Ann B. Barnet ’55 (Potter’s House Bookservice, 2011)

Photo credit: Jake Miller

“Some of the people I love and admire the most,” Ann Barnet writes in the preface to her earnest memoir, Border Crossings: A Spiritual Journey in Medicine, “do not at all understand or agree with the basis of my life of faith.” Here is a Christian doctor who cofounded a Washington, DC, community center for families, a “ridiculous bleeding heart in this decaying old world,” who realizes that in medicine, religiously driven action is more often judged for the religion than the action. She forgives this. She would probably even forgive a review that ignored her faith.

But, no—the faith is impossible to ignore. It begins with her parents, born Jewish, who converted as teenagers to “Hebrew Christians.” Her father taught Jewish life and customs (as if the topic were anthropological) to missionaries in a Bible institute in Chicago. Their religion was consuming and unpraising. “When we were good, Jesus got the credit.”

Escaping these mixed family blessings, Barnet changed her name and even her handwriting in college. She read Freud with Joseph Campbell, plucked piano strings with John Cage, and almost dated J.D. Salinger. She studied inherited behavior in inbred mice, and had “plenty of time to daydream about the mouse’s free will and mine.” She also found her way to HMS.

This was in 1951. There were eight women in the class. None were allowed to live in Vanderbilt Hall. Education was different, too. In her psychiatry rotation, the class followed one ill-prepared volunteer through an LSD trip, an experience that led Barnet to conclude she “did not have the nerve to be a psychiatrist. [They] were clumsily meddling with souls.”

Instead, she joined an EEG lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, studying evoked potentials in the brains of infants. At a dizzying pace, she married, graduated, had several infants of her own, followed her husband’s career to Heidelberg and back, joined Massachusetts General Hospital as a pediatric neurology resident, followed her husband’s career again (feminist, but dutiful) to Washington, DC, and settled into an electroretinography lab that measured stimulus-evoked potentials in newborns. During the rubella epidemic of 1963, physicians who used this technology to re-examine infected babies found that many who had been deemed severely retarded were instead hard of hearing.

The family moved briefly to Mexico City, where Barnet used EEGs and evoked potentials to study the effects of severe malnutrition and rehabilitation on infant brain function. Her patients, who lived among the garbage mountains outside Mexico City, weighed less on hospital admission than they had at birth.

Somewhere in these years, an unabashed, unambivalent faith in Christianity returned. Back in DC, in her lab at Children’s National Medical Center, the discontinuity between religious and professional life became untenable. She felt frankly “called” (which, as she acknowledges, can be frankly uncomfortable for the nonbeliever to read about). In 1979, with other church members, she cofounded The Family Place, the first family-support center in DC for low-income refugees of all legal statuses. Today, mothers bring their newborns there straight from the maternity wards. Infants find food, diapers, and comfort. Parents find English lessons, legal advice, medical referrals, parenting classes, and “wall to wall encouragement.” Everyone finds what they need.

Barnet also found what she needed. In the end, she “planted both feet across the border,” leaving the academic world for The Family Place. Knowing her through her memoir, she would wish all of us such a crossing.

Elissa Ely ’88 is a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.

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