Michele Harper: doctor, writer, and yes, yogi

My friend Margie invited me to her online book club for The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir. Michele Harper, the author, would be there. As soon as I read this passage in the introduction, I knew that Margie and the author knew each other from yoga.

“As an emergency medicine physician, I know how to be still for others. I know how to call down the gods of repose and silence, to take the measure of their power in the moments when I need it most. This stillness I inhabit as I pause, push, breathe, and grow.”

What I didn’t know until I kept reading was that yoga was an integral part of Harper’s life, and so her memoir.

The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir interweaves the personal–her growing up with a violent father, her divorce and relationship, finding and pursuing her calling as an emergency medicine physician,– but also professional–issues of racism and sexism in the medical profession and how these affect not just her, but her patients.

After Harper graduates from her residency, divorces and moves to Philadelphia, she discovers yoga as a way to heal.

“There is a saying that every new yogi finds her way to the mat in order to heal an injury. Sometimes the injury is sports-related, though most times it’s psychic–perhaps it’s a divorce, addiction, or sexual trauma that takes her out of her body as a way to cope when the trauma is too much to bear.”

It was delightful talking to Harper during the book club. She said that early on, her editor suggested that maybe she didn’t need all the yoga stuff. (I can’t imagine her writing this book without having spent time on the mat.) Eventually, it became apparent to him how significant yoga was to her perspective on life and work. Yoga is how Harper moves through the world with stillness and a sense of connectivity the allows her to be the smart and intuitive doctor she is and the insightful, beautiful writer she is.

In one chapter, she describes police bringing a young Black man into the E.R. for an examination, because they believe he has hidden drugs in his body. The resident she is supervising tells the man he must comply. It is Harper who questions the man, and discerns that he is not an medical emergency. He is completely capable of saying if he wants to be examined or not. He does not. By law, they can not force an examination on a competent adult. The resident calls the hospital administration to tell on her basically and is informed that Harper is right– to examine him would be breaking the law. Her presence makes a difference. Harper gives pause to the questions: who has control over their own bodies? Who gets to say what happens to them? Brown bodies. Black bodies. Don’t seem to have the same rights.

In another chapter, Harper is about to finish her shift, but she takes the time to examine a patient who is slated to go into the emergency psychiatric ward of the VA hospital. The patient is a Black military woman, who is struggling with PTSD. All Harper has to do is a quick physical exam to ensure that there are no issues there. Instead, she stops and takes a moment to ask her patient what happened. And for the first time, the patient tells her everything. Things she hasn’t even told her therapist. It’a beautiful moment of connection.

“I write about these moments so we always remember the power of our actions, so we always remember that beneath the most superficial layer of our skin, we are all the same. In that sameness is our common entitlement to respect, our human entitlement to love.”

How did Harper manage to write a memoir while being a full-time emergency medicine doctor? All she did was work, write, and yoga, she said. After completing a shift at the hospital, she would feel depleted, but after writing she would feel restored.

Sounds like Mindful Writing to me!

“Medicine, like yoga, like the entirety of this existence on earth, is a daily practice. It is the opportunity, should we choose it, to heal the human body and spirit.”