I cried for a stranger today.
Her sister sat expressionless next to her lifeless body, and when I walked into the room, she began crying.
My tears swell. I tell her how sorry I am, and how brave she was. She tells me that her sister died “so quickly and peacefully” and that “it was her time to go.” I am grateful she surrendered to the inevitable.
I leave to complete my documentation. Conflicted, I fight tears. I want to cry for her loss and for my loss. But, I am new here. I must make a good impression. What will they think of me? Unprofessional. Emotional. Unstable.
We want our doctors to show empathy. But do people really want to witness it? I’m cynical. I believe people judge.
Overwhelmed by the smell of her necrotic bowel in the operating room, we discussed ways to stop our gag reflex. The circulating nurse advised us that smiling while gagging would make it stop. This was comical since smiling is the last thing you feel like doing when you’re nauseated.
I was reminded of a lesson from another female intern during our weekly tearful bathroom meetings. “When you feel like crying just press the spot at the base of your nose, above your upper lip, like this.” Sitting on the cold tile of the bathroom, I tried. It hurt.
Early in my surgical training the tears I shed for my suffering patients and families led me to believe I was fatally flawed for a career in medicine. Eventually, I learned to amputate my emotions. I became numb and ultimately unrecognizable to myself. I discovered that I can’t annex my feelings at work and have easy access to them when I leave the hospital. My heart is open, or it is closed.
I chose to be open. The good and bad news is: I feel more. I realize as I comfort my patient, my tears can rise and a few may even escape their watery cisterns. But, I cannot bawl at the computer as I type my note. Real life is not a weekly drama where doctors unabashedly cry in front of hospital staff and their peers. I don’t know if it ever will be. Until then, I will cry in my car, in the bathroom, in the parking lot or anywhere I feel safe to be human.
Mary Grace Heyrosa