It was only a few years into my medical career that I encountered my first near-burnout. I was in my early 30s, almost overworked, when one night at one of the monthly hospital staff meetings I lamented about it to beloved Biloxi pediatrician Dr. Steve Sekul, now deceased. He gave me advice which I’ve never taken, regrettably so; he advised me to take off a four-day weekend every three months for as long as I was active.
At the time my perspective on things was far different than it is now and so as a young physician I slugged along, sometimes for two years, eventually taking extended time off. Only on returning from each vacation did I realize how right Dr. Sekul was. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey refers to this, more or less, as “sharpening the saw.”
And so it is, once again, I realize the wisdom of this advice, having returned recently from much needed time off. I had the opportunity recently to visit my paternal grandfather’s homeland in Trogir, Croatia. Last fall, my nephew was vacationing in Europe and while searching the archives for the family tree on the tiny island of Trogir, in the Adriatic Sea, just off the second largest Croatian city, Split, he serendipitously discovered second cousins currently living and working there, including my grandfather’s niece and our oldest living relative in the family lineage, 85 year old Dinka, who happened to share with my nephew an old photo of my parents on their wedding day. It was a surprise to say the least, considering we were never sure we had relatives in Croatia to begin with. And so two brothers, my nephew, and I planned then to visit these cousins in April.
With the help of a local amateur genealogist, an avid one, who had digitalized the archives, using birth, marriage, baptism, and death records we were able to trace and confirm five generations back, back before my grandfather. It was fascinating. In the process we learned we have no family crest as, according to the records, our lineage had no nobility or royalty – only fishermen, bootmakers, and such.
Dinka confirmed that in 1907 my grandfather Mitchell V. Gruich, then 19, went missing, and was thought dead, until they received a letter a month later that he’d stowed away on a merchant marine ship, being discovered half-way across the Atlantic and arriving in New Orleans without a passport, no documents, no money, and unable to speak the language. She further confirmed our suspicion that he’d been moved to immigrate as a result of the depressed local economy at that time, a time when, according to Dinka, nobody knew where the next loaf of bread was coming from.
Like many hard-working immigrants he forged a better life, eventually breaking out of the “work for the seafood company” system, owning his own shrimp boat, making a good living and providing for his wife and four children, and somehow along the way learning the Spanish language, which he spoke fluently. Like other immigrants he became totally acclimated to the culture, and as far as we know, lived a good life according to the laws of this great land.
There’s a certain pride and sense of fulfillment one gains on learning about their past, their family, their heritage. The Jewish writer Franz Kafka, initially reluctant to express his Jewishness, in later years wrote about how fulfilling it was for him to learn about his own heritage; that it satisfied a void. It’s a little difficult to articulate but can be described as something akin to the adopted grown child who, driven by “something missing” seeks to find and bond with their biological parents. To me, I think it’s something that resides in the soul.
I have memorabilia and Croatian things in my home but not a flag as my brother does in his home. While the Croatian national flag has no personal meaning for most, for a Gruich, and others of Croatian ancestry, it carries a special meaning, one of personal heritage. And of course we wouldn’t really expect others to share in it. But it’s not difficult to understand why a particular flag would have a personal or special meaning for anyone, notwithstanding personal heritage.
The five days spent in Croatia was the first half of my own vacation, spending the last half with my wife’s family in southern Germany, she who happens also to be an immigrant since the age of 19.
At any rate, I have a special appreciation for what it means to be an immigrant seeking a new life, for none of us, the descendants of Mitchell V. Gruich, would be here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast if it were not for the bold, ambitious actions in 1907 of a 19 year old Croatian immigrant stowing away on a ship and eventually settling in Biloxi, Mississippi.
But while it’s always good to get away, it’s even better to always come home. And like on my return from past vacations I’ve always felt, as I do now, refreshed, sharpened mentally, and ready to engage my work with a new level of energy.
If you’re a professional, and are able, I would strongly recommend for your better physical and mental health, to take the advice of Drs. Sekul and Covey and take regular breaks and time off, because by the time you really need one you don’t realize it – kind of like getting a heat stroke -- by the time you start getting thirsty it’s already too late.
Do it. You’ll be glad you did.