At sixty, Dr. Steven Miles has spent a lifetime helping people. Whether it be improving end of life care, criticizing the use of restraints in nursing homes, improving refugee camp medicine, or researching the human rights violations performed by doctors at Abu Ghraib and other prisons during the war on terror, Miles has been drawn to help those who are otherwise neglected.
Born in South Minneapolis, Miles moved to Minnetonka in grade school and eventually went to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. In college, he wasn’t sure whether to attend the seminary or medical school and at the last minute decided to go to medical school at the University of Minnesota.
“I loved it,” he said of his choice, “and I’ve never regretted it.” He chose to go into internal medicine because of “its interesting and complex diagnostic challenges” where “anything can be wrong,” he said. Miles was drawn to internal medicine because so much of it is done without machinery, but rather with what the doctor knows. “It always impressed me how much you could do without fancy equipment,” Miles said, “Sometimes I think that it’s easy to forget the great mysteries we get to see.”
In 1981, Miles traveled to the Thai-Cambodian border to work with refugees, assuming a post as Chief Medical Officer for 45,000 refugees. He also has worked on projects in Sudan, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Indonesia, and the Thai-Burmese border. While serving in refugee camps, Miles was able to improve the medicine there. His team discovered a local folkway that was transmitting tetanus to newborns and successfully worked with the traditional midwives to suppress that folkway.
Upon his return to the United States, Miles started work at a standard HMO clinic. “I found that wasn’t my deal,” he said. Instead, he transferred to the VA clinic, because a friend of his was in charge of the VA medicine department. “It was the only thing available,” Miles said of the ward he was assigned to work on, which served persons with illnesses that required hospice care, some of whom also suffered from dementia. “I thought it sounded like a refugee camp,” Miles said, because, as with his experience with refugees, no one wanted to take care of those suffering from severe chronic disease.
Miles said that he draws inspiration from all of the people that he’s cared for, particularly his elderly patients. “I’ve met so many astounding people,” he said. Just last week he treated a concentration camp survivor. “The ability to hear history firsthand through these people has been utterly enriching and entrancing,” Miles said.
He’s written some of the stories down, although he’s limited by the obligations of confidentiality. Still, he said, he stands in awe of what he sees. “My days are not spent on basketball scores,” he said. Especially in his work with death and the dying, his days are spent with the “profound moments in people’s lives.”
Though Miles is driven by an intense desire to help people, he prefers, aside from his work with patients, to work alone. “I’m not that sociable,” he said. He loves to read, and work on his garden. He had an interest in photography for a while, until it went digital, when all the buttons made it not as much fun. Miles has written most of his papers as a single author.
“I think it’s probably a failing,” he said of his solitude. “I could have been more effective if I had been more sociable. I’m a very poor networker. I’m good at designing public strategies, but not at carrying them out.” Miles ran for the U.S. Senate a few years ago. “I thoroughly enjoyed it, but you’ll notice I did lose.”
He has found more success working behind the scenes. For example, several years ago Miles spent several years investigating the role that doctors played in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other facilities during the war on terror. As a doctor, Miles was able to examine death certificates and have a deeper understanding of the consent and participation that doctors had in those instances. His findings were published in Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors, (University of California Press, 2009).
Day in and day out, Miles studied the 60,000 pages of government documents describing this medical system in war on terror prisons, and experienced secondary trauma. To cope, Miles began to attend the Dakota Jazz club with more frequency.
“Jazz is a creative response to suffering,” Miles said. “I needed a different way to process the material. It turned out jazz is really helpful in doing that.” Miles continues to enjoy jazz, and his appreciation has deepened. “Some material I couldn’t understand at the beginning, but now I understand why it’s genius.”
Miles said the other element in his life that keeps him sane, besides jazz, is his wife, Joline Gitis, who he says “is not in medicine, thank God.” She is a docent at the Walker, the Weisman and the state capital. “She knows an incredible amount about art and politics,” Miles said. “She keeps me informed.”
Together, the two have three children. The eldest is Erica, an adopted foster child born with fetal alcohol syndrome who now is a spokesperson for FAS awareness, and who has graduated from college and recently gotten married. His second child, Dara, was an orphan from a refugee camp in Cambodia, and their third child, Esme, was born “the old fashioned way,” Miles said.
Miles doesn’t put much score in keeping a balanced life. In fact, he said “balance is overrated.” Instead, he said: “I just wander around picking stuff I’m interested and doing them.”