Human Interest: A Doctor's Story
Oct 01, 2019 Katie Sweeney
Nitin Kapur, MD, MPH, leans forward in his living room chair—one leg casually folded up, half-lotus style, against his indigo blue jeans. His brown eyes are intent.
“I want to know my patients,” he says. “I want to know who they are. I want to understand them. That’s one of the most important things to me.”
Kapur is relaxing at his home in Pacific Palisades on a cool, overcast June morning. The sparsely furnished living room—one white chair, a spacious tan leather sofa and a square glass coffee table—is serene. It’s the kind of open, slow-down-the-world space he tries to create with his patients as a Cedars-Sinai internist in Santa Monica.
“I want patients to feel comfortable, to trust me,” he says. “When I meet a new patient, I’ll always start with, ‘Tell me something about you—something that has nothing to do with why you’re here.’”
The question can lead to a revealing dialogue. Patients have shared everything from a love of music to estrangement from their family to former careers. One elderly patient told him she used to be a model; she later brought Kapur a photo of her younger self.
Others are surprised by his inquiry. “People look at me and don’t know what to say,” he adds. “But I wait. I wait for the story.”
Kapur’s own story begins in India, where he was born, the eldest son of an Indian army captain and a stay-at-home mom. The family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 4, settling first in Louisiana and later in South Texas.
An early teacher declared he’d never do well in English, but she was wrong—it became his favorite subject. In college, he majored in English, acted in theater productions and planned to pursue a PhD in 20th century American literature.
Then came the plot twist. Toward the end of his undergraduate studies, Kapur traveled to India with his dad and spent a semester in Nepal. Seeing the overwhelming poverty in both countries, he knew he wanted to help people in a concrete way. Soon, he was on his way to medical school.
“I wanted to practice medicine with an eye toward social justice,” Kapur says. “Primary care was a way to do that, to treat the whole person.”
Meanwhile, his love for writing continued to flourish. During his medical residency at Yale, he participated in a physician writer’s workshop, crafting two deeply personal essays later published in medical journals. One explored his feelings about a dying patient who made racist remarks to him—and his eventual realization that he missed an opportunity to know the man better. Another dealt with counseling a patient to lose weight—even as Kapur waged his own battle with the scale.
Recently, he penned a piece about his 18-month stint as a stay-at-home dad. When he first came to Los Angeles in 2016, Kapur cared full time for his two daughters—Aarya, now 4, and Asha, now 3—so his wife, Alpna, could begin her psychiatry residency at UCLA. The essay describes his angst as a new father and his conflict about putting his career on hold.
“I write because it helps me understand how I feel about something. It’s like therapy,” he explains.
Just as importantly, writing about his own experiences gives him a window into the struggles other people face. That’s one more way he can better understand his patients—and know who they are.
Kapur's Recommended Reading
Kapur reads because it helps him feel connected to others. “It reminds me that I am not alone in my insecurities, fears and aspirations,” he says. “In its best form, reading is rejuvenating and fills my emotional cup when I feel depleted.” Here, he shares a few of his favorite books:
- On His Nightstand Now
- 20th Century Classics
Song of Solomon
Tender Is the Night
F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Words to Live By
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
- Old-School Sci-Fi
The Martian Chronicles
- A Dystopian View
The Handmaid’s Tale
- Favorite Poem (It Wooed His Now-Wife)
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
- Guilty Pleasure
Any Jack Reacher novel