Woog's World / An amazing life story, even for Westport
Things are not always what they seem -- even in Westport.
Especially in Westport.
When Christopher was 11 years old, his father died. (Christopher is not his real name; he asked that an alias be used to protect his family's privacy.) A few months later, his mother moved to Westport so her children could attend the excellent schools.
Christopher and his older sister were latchkey kids. Sometimes they did not see their mother for a week. In sixth grade he started writing his own school absence notes. The next year, he stopped doing homework.
Around that time, his sister started having parties at their house. Christopher began drinking and liked the resulting "spiritual awakening." The world, he said, "suddenly made sense." At 15 he got his first job -- washing dishes at a restaurant. He moved on to another, where after work he drank at the bar.
Although "not very strong academically," Christopher felt comfortable in restaurants. At 17, he was running a night kitchen.
Feeling alienated, Christopher dropped out of Staples High School. His mother said the only reason she was in Westport was for the education. When she moved five months later, half the house was already in boxes. The family had never unpacked.
Christopher was "essentially homeless." He slept at friends' homes. After wearing out those welcomes, he slept in his car in a school parking lot.
His drinking buddies disappeared into rehab. When they came back, wearing nice clothes and leading clean lives, Christopher wondered what it would take for him to rejoin society too.
Finally, a family friend helped Christopher get his GED. He took classes at local community colleges.
Something clicked. He earned a near-perfect GPA. He took an EMT class and worked at a hospital and on the ambulance. He also waited tables.
Exhausted, he quit those jobs and traveled overseas. He took trains, stayed in hostels and got a job cooking.
When Christopher returned to the U.S., an acquaintance told him about a prestigious university's evening program. He took a three-quarters course load -- studying the same syllabus from the same professors who taught during the day -- while working 32-hour weeks at a hospital burn center. He also served as a residence assistant, cooking in exchange for room and board.
After earning a degree from that school, Christopher applied to medical school. He was accepted at one of the best in the country.
He and his girlfriend, a graduate student, had a long-distance relationship. In Christopher's second year in medical school they were married. He graduated two years later.
He did not plan to become a surgeon; that life, he says, can be "unbalanced." But he won a prize as top student in both internal medicine and surgery. During his surgery rotation -- his last -- he was amazed at the surgeons' "accomplishments, poise and leadership." Christopher learned that most alcoholics die not from cirrhosis, but from car accidents, falls and the like. Surgery became a way for him to serve people struggling with problems like alcoholism.
Christopher began his residency at another top university. Six months later, his first child was born. Another followed later.
His first two years of clinical work were followed by two years of research. Christopher discovered he loved investigating the problems and processes involved in health care delivery. He spent three more years training to be a general surgeon, then did a fellowship in surgical critical care and trauma. When that was done, he became an assistant professor of surgery.
Recently, he was promoted to a high position in intensive care. He oversees all in-patient units at his hospital. He continues to be a general surgeon.
"No one is more surprised than me" at how his life turned out, Christopher says. "I can't draw a straight line from the kid who wanted to die every day to the person I am today. But I know I've learned to think more about other people than myself."
Why has he chosen to share his story with readers in the town where he once drank, dropped out of school and became homeless?
"I'm not sure," Christopher says. "But maybe something reaches people in Westport who feel marginalized or have no hope. I felt that way, too.
"Living in Westport is very challenging. There are so many beautiful people and beautiful homes. To say I felt on the outside doesn't begin to describe where I was.
"But things got better."