A Conversation with Steve Pantilat | See previous interviews

Steve Pantilat

Steve Pantilat

Where were you born? What is your place in the family hierarchy and what kind of child were you? Can you share an anecdote that illustrates something of your family?

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. I am the eldest of three and have two younger sisters. I was curious and active, liked playing with things and testing how they worked, and had a very active imagination. My parents told me that I had an imaginary friend named Binyong, who lived behind the television and I regaled them with stories about what we did together. My sisters live in Los Angeles; both are teachers and are married to teachers. My parents were born in Israel and both emigrated to the United States in the late 1950s where they were introduced at a wedding. My dad took the advice given to Benjamin in "The Graduate" and got into plastics, and he worked for years at the Nalgene Company. My father was a gentle, sweet, funny, and good-hearted man. My mom was lovely. She came to the United States with plans to return to Israel to serve in the Israeli army after she graduated from high school but stayed when she met my dad. She was a stay-at-home mom who always had lunch waiting when I came home from PS175, my elementary school, very traditional. She took me to all my Little League games and was very attentive and warm.

From where does your surname originate? What do you know about your family history? 

I have a family tree and name that goes back five or six generations and is originally from Pterlucky, in Ukraine near Kiev. I think the name might be pronounced differently: "Pantil-yat" but I have not met anyone on earth with that name who is not related in some way. All four grandparents emigrated from Europe to Israel: my paternal grandfather came in 1924 after a pogrom. My paternal grandmother came in 1933 from Lithuania, one of eleven siblings, and only she and one brother survived the Holocaust. My maternal grandfather was a Zionist who came around 1934 from Lodz, Poland. My maternal grandmother's family left a business in Warsaw, Poland, so she had enough money to establish a business, a small grocery store, in Tel Aviv. At that time, there were only two ways that the British would let immigrants into Israel: they either had to have money or obtain a visa through the Zionists.

Your new book, Life After the Diagnosis, was published on Valentine's Day, the anniversary of your father's death. Why now? Can you describe what this was like?

I had been thinking about writing this book for about a decade. When I was on sabbatical in 2007–2008, I wrote an outline for it. I have always received emails and calls from friends, relatives, and colleagues about people they know who have serious illness and who need advice. They would ask, "What book should I read?" and I realized that there was no such resource. It got me to thinking that there should be and that I should write it—that you can help people by giving them information even if you are not their doctor. About four years ago, I began writing in earnest and, because writing is not my strength, I first spoke it into a recorder. I followed with an outline and, as I spoke aloud, filled in what I thought should be included and had the chapters transcribed. Then, with my editor's help, I developed each chapter with details, information, and stories. The initial proposal was about 65–70 page document and that took about a year and a half. Finding an agent, the editing process and finding a publisher took a considerable amount of time and then they set a deadline. I wrote early in the morning, late at night, and weekends until finally I wrote continually until it was completed.

Does speaking in language of realistic optimism come naturally to you or is it an ability you learned over time and experience?

I don't think I was born knowing how to talk to patients the way I do. Communicating comes easily to me and I learn well verbally. I was one of those guys in medical school who went to class because it was better for me than reading. Some of the way I speak comes naturally but some of it has been learned over the course of time because of the ways that patients respond, of being conscious of what I want to say and how to be deliberate about words and their impact, and then how to analyze and refine language. I have learned so much from Cindy, many colleagues, and our PC team about how to communicate effectively and empathically. Words are really important but, like musicians or athletes, we learn mechanics and then we practice to make things fluid. Once you become more expert, you can improvise and do things that you never practiced in situations you never encountered before. It's a little like watching Steph Curry do something amazing and thinking, "he didn't practice that, there's no way he knew how to do that!" But at a certain level of expertise it's possible. I have also gained a lot more self-awareness. We impact patients in the way we act with them both in body language and how we talk to and with them, so it is important to be aware of how we are experienced, because it matters.

You often share evocative imagery through "the language of the heart." Are you yourself a poet? Do you respond to music similarly?

In high school, I did not understand poetry at all and kept trying to understand what it was "about." I am not a poet but I learned about poetry from Steve McPhee. He would read poetry at the bedside, something I don't do, but came to appreciate. Now, I often read poems before rounds. I like Mary Oliver a lot and call her the Poet Laureate of Palliative Care because she writes about death and nature and observation. I really like folk music and singer/songwriters, people like Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Carole King, and The Weepies. Music is very evocative and certain songs take me back to specific times in my life. I like melody and meaningful words, and my kids roll their eyes because I'm stuck in the 1970s and 1980s.

What about your own upbringing has been important to share with your sons? What do you most enjoy about the paths that they are taking that may be different than yours?

The importance of family. We are affectionate and joke around. None of my boys are headed into Medicine. The two eldest are into economics, marketing and business, and the youngest likes science but he is more into gaming. They find doctor talk yucky and gross. They are all on their own paths, talented and way more artistic, athletic, and entrepreneurial than I am. It has been very sweet to see their different talents and I've learned a lot from them.

Steve and family

When was the last just-for-fun vacation that Steve and Cindy enjoyed and where is next? Are you museumgoers, adventurers, or laze-around-the-pool people?

We try to do it all. Our last fun family vacation was in the Yucatan over the summer. We visited Chichen Itza, Uxmal, swam in the cenotes (Oxman was our favorite), swam with whale sharks, relaxed in Tulum, and all of it was awesome. I love art and going to museums, having adventures, hiking, and being active with some beach time.

Steve on vacation

What might surprise even longtime friends and colleagues to know about you? What little known fact or quirk might they get a kick out of learning?

I love golf, which I picked up when I was around ten-years old. I love golf so much that I will even watch it on television. Also, I am a total creature of habit. I never get bored with the route I run every morning, I organize my book bag the same way, always put my wallet and keys in the same place, and eat a PBJ every day. I've done enough Meyers-Briggs tests to know that there are other ways but mine is comforting to me.

Thank you, Steve, and congratulations again on your book's success.

- by Oralia Schatzman

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