Mother’s Day, 2020. My daughter Skyler was sitting on the tall stool at the kitchen counter, her long hair in a messy bun that she’d pulled apart as she was thinking. For months, she’d been searching for financial support to attend university in the fall. It was the deadline for a scholarship offered by the drug company Vertex to family members of patients who have cystic fibrosis (CF).
Patients like me.
Joe, a young Black man, has fire in his eyes as he storms down the apartment building’s front steps and into the night. It’s around 10:00 pm, and you can tell he means business as he heads across the parking lot toward a group of rough-looking white guys who are drinking beer and playing loud music.
I’m on the front porch talking with the minister as we wait for the funeral home to arrive to remove Joe’s mother’s body. Sensing something bad is about to happen, I take off after him.
One winter weekend, I was walking in a local park that has an ice-skating rink. I stopped to watch the skaters for a few minutes. I’m not a skater myself, but I appreciated the skaters’ wide range of ages and abilities.
Off to one side of the rink, I saw a young boy struggling to skate. He was hanging onto one of the walker frames that were provided, his face a mixture of determination, frustration and a hint of fear as he struggled to stay upright and move forward.
As I reflect on my year of clinical rotations as a medical student, my mind instantly conjures up some of the biggest moments I’ve experienced.
There have been euphoric highs, like delivering a beautiful baby girl to first-time parents on Mother’s Day. And heartbreaking lows, like having a panic attack in the bathroom after a patient with psychosis shared his delusions about race with me.
The first time I watched a baby being delivered, the world narrowed to the woman in front of me. And the head coming out of her. Followed by a little shoulder, then the other. Then there was a baby in the room. A brand-new human being, seconds old.
The doctor placed the baby on the mom’s chest, and the baby cried—a soft newborn cry, the kind before their lungs develop and it becomes shrill.
I stood in the corner, afraid that if I said or did anything, the magic in the room would disappear. I felt my eyes water, but I couldn’t talk.
My husband George got to know Ruthie while he was sitting with his mom during her final days in an assisted-living facility. Ruthie, a hospice worker, was a middle-aged woman who had reentered the workforce after raising her kids. As a nursing-assistant trainee, she was learning on the job, with George’s mom, unconscious and steadily declining, as one of her first patients.
Soon after meeting Ruthie, George was struck by her lack of self-confidence.
A small wooden figure watches over my office. Four inches tall, hand-carved, neatly painted wood—an angel figurine with golden hair, majestic wings and a simple pure-white gown. Throughout my day seeing patients as an internal medicine and pediatrics resident, this angel watches over me—a constant reminder.
Two years ago, as a fourth-year medical student, I was on my internal medicine “acting internship” on the general internal medicine floor. This service was known for great teaching and complex cases—and notorious for emotionally heavy experiences.
It is a chilly January night, a week after New Year’s and a few days after my twenty-fourth birthday. I’m halfway through my third year of medical school and have just started my clerkship on the hospital’s trauma unit.
I’ve been dreading this experience; I’m on twenty-four-hour call, and my heart sinks every time the pager goes off.