I had planned to take care of my dad at the end of his life.
In 2009, Dad retired at seventy-five because of Parkinson’s disease. Over the next couple of years, he lived in his own home. My younger brother Mark, who lived nearby, faced the first difficult milestones brought on by Dad’s declining health. Mark was the one to tell Dad that he could no longer drive. And after Dad moved out, Mark took on the monumental project of cleaning a half-century of detritus from the house Dad left behind.
“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” — Maya Angelou
Before starting my dive into medicine, almost four years ago, I was an avid violinist, pianist, disc golfer and novice chef. Each of these activities felt comfortable and familiar–like “home.” But when I began medical school, I somewhat wistfully set them aside to focus on becoming a doctor.
I was young when I met Larry. Well, not that young: I was thirty-one. My medical training–thirteen years in all–was finally over, and I was working as an instructor in the child-neurology clinic at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and caring for kids with epilepsy.
My patient Larry was seventeen. A stocky, dark-haired, nonathletic boy with borderline intellectual disability, he suffered from depression, and my notes mentioned his “pugnacious personality.”
As a third-year medical student midway through a family-medicine rotation, I’m supervised by a family physician in several free clinics in our large city.
On Fridays, we run a clinic for torture victims who’ve left their home countries to seek asylum in the US. I’ve been following a new patient, Julian, an African refugee.
Julian is a small, thin man in his early thirties. His large eyes, shy smile and soft voice belie the determination and resilience evident in his story.
On a damp, overcast Friday morning, I was wandering around the downtown area of a nearby city with my camera. I found an interesting scene and photographed it, carefully adjusting my camera’s settings and the composition until I felt I’d conveyed what I’d felt when I saw it.
Lowering my camera from my eyes, I realized that, for the first time in months, my mind felt clear and my heart felt open. This realization struck me so hard that I sank onto a park bench. Tears of relief and sadness leaked from my eyes.
Opening my purse to pull out my reading glasses, I notice the small white nasal-spray bottle still encased in its clear plastic packaging. I’ve been carrying it for a few months now. Do I feel reassured seeing it there?
As a physician, I wonder if the chance is greater that I’ll one day use this bottle to save someone’s life than it is that I’ll rescue someone with CPR or the Heimlich maneuver.
It was 5:00 pm in the intensive-care unit, and my team and I had just wrapped up our interview with elderly Ms. Armijo, who was in critical condition after emergency abdominal surgery.
Exhausted after a long day, we headed for the door, the ICU machines and monitors beeping their goodbyes.
Leaving my office this evening, I see the white orchid’s last petal struggling to hold on. With its faded grey veins and withered brown edges, it looks like a bit of old, crumpled paper. Even the sunlight streaming through the window doesn’t brighten it. Tenderly, I reach down to touch its softness.
The touch transports me back to when I first met Shirley, who gave me the orchid. I remember it vividly.
This essay is modeled after Sei Shonogun’s list “Hateful Things” from her tenth-century classic The Pillow Book. She listed everything she hated about being a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress, ca. 966-1017.
I wrote my list as a family physician working in community health centers, ca. 2005-2020. As our nation grapples with endemic racism while also facing the COVID pandemic, my trials and tribulations may seem trivial–but they also reflect a broken medical system that badly needs fixing, for everyone’s sake.