Not All Smiles Are Alike – FAMM

Not All Smiles Are Alike

Landing in prison five years ago was an unimaginable twist in the trajectory of my eventful life. I was expecting a lot of envelopes from my wide circle of friends that encompassed cab drivers to congresspersons, homeless people living under the bridges to members of elite country clubs living in mansions. Landing at JFK airport, NY, 30 years ago, on my maiden journey from Lahore, Pakistan, to standing on the steps leading from Rose Garden to the Oval Office in the White House, next to the President of the United States was a dream come true. The conviction for 1 count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud of 259 Million USD was a nightmare realized. I was convicted on a plea in a court of law but not in the court of my family and peers. So I did get a lot of envelopes that brought a lot of smiles. But not all smiles are alike, either in their origin or in their impact on our soul. I will share with you a special smile brought on by a life-affirming message. Anatomically, a smile is just a movement of a few facial muscles giving our face an expression commonly associated with happiness. But not all smiles convey joy. Human Beings are endowed with the muscle in the neck, Platysma, that helps us deliver a “sardonic smile”. This smile conveys a panorama of meanings, from mockery, sarcasm to derision but also can be seen as a wisely smile on the face of a sage listening patiently to the hyperbolic discourse of a newly initiated disciple. I am sure that I had this sardonic smile on my face when a letter from the clerk of the court informed me that due to nonpayment of $25 towards my restitution has resulted in 6 Million USD fine with the current grand total at 30 Million. Surely, somewhere in the vast catacombs of Federal Bureaucracy recorded 30 Million as an account receivable from me in our National Budget. Then there are smiles that are an enigma for centuries like the smile of Mona Lisa. Some smiles are produced when one is lost in reverie and some are like migratory birds, harbingers of upcoming spring. Some smiles are so powerful that they can launch “Thousand ships to sail”. I have no such illusion about the power of my smile. But one particular message did fill the sails of my spirit like strong winds and set my soul soaring. The message was signed by the congregation of a church in New Roads, a small town near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The town was in dire need of Psychiatric services. Mrs. Dolly Wright, wife of Pastor Wright tried to meet this challenge. Her passion was infectious I committed to providing psychiatric services for her clinic on Mandela drive once or twice a month. There were kids with ADHD, veterans with PTSD, mothers with postpartum depression and people with Schizophrenia living on the extreme fringes of existence. The extremely close-knit social organization of the community borne out of a high degree of interdependency scarce resources and very limited access to services pose a challenge to my psycho-analytic training in NY under the great masters. I had to treat multi-generation patients from children to their grandparents. On the other hand, I was quickly accepted and integrated in the community because of my similar rural background in Pakistan. The two villages, thousand miles apart, speaking languages Sariki and English but stories of grief, loss, and struggles of life no different. I treated once a man with severe Parkinsonian tremors. A few weeks later he showed up with a grocery bag full of pecans, proudly holding it steadily. He had picked the pecans by going around town. I accepted this gift and was rewarded with a beautiful smile expressing gratitude. After my indictment, I tried to find referrals for all of my patients but it was not easy. If there was an agreement on anything between me and the government, it was around the fact that “I treated those patients who no one else wanted to treat”. You may not realize but like beauty, the eligibility to be treated can also lie in the eyes of the beholder! I continued to provide care until I was sitting in the visitor center of FPC Montgomery to self-surrender. I called my last prescription by phone, talked to a distraught daughter about her elderly mother and then handed my phone to my wife, said a prayer for everyone, and entered the gates of the prison.

Two years later I got an envelope containing a greeting card signed by the people of New Roads. It brought this message: “We do not forget those who cared for us. Dr. I., you cared for us, we will never forget you.” Sure, other messages from family and friends of solidarity and everlasting friendship and tales of shared life were precious. They helped sustain me through my darkest period of life. However, this message from people of New Roads made me realize that I cannot drop my anchor yet. Their message rekindled the fire of my commitment to care for those suffering from severe mental illness. This message also left me with regret. I tried to reply to their letter trying my best to make out the address which was written with shaky handwriting from a hand with tremors. My letter was returned as undelivered.

I hope maybe someone from New Roads reading this story on FAMM page will be able to contact Ms. Dolly and her daughter Debra Wright and let them know that I have not forgotten them. Hopefully, one day I will be able to travel to New Roads and deliver that letter by hand in person. This thought also brings a smile that I wish to share with my FAMM family.

— Zahid I.

Return to The 1000 Stories Project