The Rhythms of Life: an Interview with Francine Kaufman, MD

Dr. Francine Kaufman, chief medical officer and vice president of Global Diabetes for Medtronic, Inc since 2009, and previously head of the Center for Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, is perhaps best known for her critically-acclaimed nonfiction book Diabesity: The Obesity-Diabetes Epidemic That Threatens America - And What We Must Do to Stop It (Bantam, 2005, available on Amazon here).  She also has a long list of more technical writing as well, books and more 200 peer-reviewed publications.

But 2015 has proved to be a turning point for her with the publication of her first novel, Rythms. Here is the enticing cover that artfully reflects the theme of the book:

Available on Amazon in digital and printed version, click here 
(Published by Charm Kraft Ind, California)

Since it is a novel that features a woman physician grappling with the last, harrowing three days in her mother's life (she is suffering from arrythmia), I was immediately struck by the implications, both for Dr. Kaufman who seems to have fictionalized a major event in her life and for myself, since I lost my own mother a few months ago (she was 101 and also suffered from arrythmia -  I  recounted her passing with a poem "The First Days of My Life Without You", published on this blog here). 

The opening paragraph immediately grabbed me:

This is a remarkable first chapter, the author throws her reader in media res, you can see the woman grappling with the issues right away. And I am very pleased to share with you this interview with author Francine Kaufman.

Q: The book description on Amazon is terse and direct: "A novel about a woman physician and the last three days of her mother's life". Could you tell us what the book is about in your own words?

Dr. Francine Kaufman: Rhythms is a family drama centered around the death of the protagonist’s elderly, frail mother. It takes place over three days, but toggles back and forth in time to introduce the reader to the characters and their lives.  The three days in the present show how all-consuming caring for an elderly parent can be - particularly when that parent resides in your home.

Q: What motivated you to write it?

Dr. Kaufman: I was motivated by the power of families keeping secrets. I was also moved to write to come to terms with the death of my own mother. I did care for my own mother when she was dying in my home. There were times it was very hard. I tried to reveal the fear, disgust, and rawness of realizing that you have become your mother's mother.  I also tried to show how this intermingles with the realization that many of us don't really know who all that there is to know about our own mothers. I always felt my mother had secrets and I didn’t know all that happened to her in her life. I know we all have secrets and I explored in my book how this helps share who we are and what can happen in our lives.
Q: The book is a skillful blend of medical detail and the personal life of a family. How easy was that for you to do, since this is your first novel after all.  

Dr. Kaufman: As a doctor, I found myself drawn to telling the story through a medical lens. And also that in the life of a doctor who is a mother and wife, there is a lot of multi-tasking. I drew on my own experience for that. The protagonist, Dr. Rebecca Brodie, is a doctor in every cell of her body, excited by research, but driven by the human interactions, the stories she is told by her patients, and the need to play detective to determine what is real from what is not. Her job as a doctor is to find out everything about everyone, but yet I show in my book how she is unable to find out everything about her own family. There’s irony in Rebecca being able to penetrate the facades put in place by her patients, but not by her own family.

Q: Is this a feminist “having it all” sort of story?

Dr. Kaufman:  Rhythms is the story of the woman raised in a time when the world wanted her to believe she could do anything and everything. Only Rebecca could determine for herself at what sacrifice that had to be done - and cope with the angst of never feeling she could do enough. Perhaps it’s a feminist story about an empowered, effective woman who is a doctor and scientist, but it also shows the emotional ties that a woman needs to thrive as a mother and wife.

Thank you, Dr. Kaufman, for sharing these thoughts with us. I can fully empathize with your observation that as a woman "raised in a time when the world wanted her to believe she could do anything and everything" - in this case, juggling three lives, one as a scientist, another as a mother and the third as a daughter caring for her dying parent - must have given her the "angst of never feeling she could do enough." 

That angst, I'm afraid, is with all of us working mothers and, more broadly, all of us baby boomers, male and female, having to take care of our aging parents and yet still responsible for our grown-up children - the "sandwiched generation". And that is why Dr. Kaufman's novel is such an important book and I highly recommend it.