fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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Stories

Lessons From My Teachers

In July 2003, a few days after I had started service as inpatient attending pediatric cardiologist at Lutheran General Children’s Hospital, the neonatologists, nurses and I met with Jenni and Tony to discuss their daughter Grace’s health status.

Grace, now two and a half weeks old, had seemed normal at birth. After a few hours, her skin color had turned blue: Her oxygen level was dangerously low. She’d been whisked off to the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU), where tests showed that her heart function was poor due to high blood pressure in her lungs. Her heart and lungs began to fail, so we’d placed her on a heart-lung machine (ECMO) for sixteen days. Now taken off the machine, she was breathing with the help of

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“How Long Have You Had These Symptoms, Doctor?”

“How long have you had these symptoms?”

Dr. Quantrell’s tone was kind and inquisitive, but with the CT scan on the computer between us displaying a two-centimeter kidney stone, I couldn’t help hearing: How long have you been ignoring this problem?

Much has been written about the experience of doctor as patient. Like many of my colleagues before me, I’d fallen into the trap of trying to diagnose myself before calling my family physician.

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Nontraditional

Editor’s Note: This piece was awarded an honorable mention in the Pulse writing contest, “On Being Different.”

I have always been different. As a nurse I was a late bloomer, though I’d always felt passionately drawn to the profession.

I was born to nurse. This was evident even when I was a young child; I bathed my grandmother’s amputated leg while the other kids played in the yard. Although I had planned to go to nursing school after graduation, I took a seventeen-year detour and ultimately entered as a nontraditional student.

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Don, 1979

It’s 3:00 am. Deep in the bowels of the hospital, bright fluorescent lights softly buzz overhead in the windowless snack bar, where a row of vending machines give off a low hum.

Don, my sixteen-year-old patient, and I sit huddled in orange plastic chairs at a tiny Formica table. He is ranting, and I am listening. Neither of us can sleep. Don is awake because he is mad at the world, and I’m awake because I’m the pediatric resident on call.

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Scars

Editor’s Note: This piece was awarded an honorable mention in the Pulse writing contest, “On Being Different.”

In the summer between second and third grade, when I was eight, I first realized that it was safer for me to hide my surgical scars.

I had two huge scars starting at my hip joints and running halfway down my outer thighs. They were “Dr. Frankenstein” scars, with obvious cross-hatches that couldn’t be missed when I wore shorts or bathing suits.

That summer, my scars brought odd looks and comments from both children and adults.

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Powerless

“I know it wasn’t really your fault, but I blame you on some level,” said my patient Aisha, sounding husky over the phone. “I’m working on forgiving you, but I’m not there yet.”

Tears sprang to my eyes, but I kept my voice steady as I replied, “I understand. I’m sorry about my role in what happened. Please let me know if you ever feel ready to come back to see me, but I can refer you to another doctor in the meantime.”

What had I done to deserve such harsh words? I hadn’t prevented her traumatic childbirth experience.

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Our Shared Journey

Editor’s Note: This piece was awarded an honorable mention in the Pulse writing contest, “On Being Different.”

It took a terrifying and life-changing experience of being different for me to realize a fundamental truth: I’m the same as everyone else.

This truth has redefined my goals and reshaped the way I practice medicine.

At age twenty-nine, during my third and final year of internal-medicine residency, I received a diagnosis of a rare and malignant brain cancer called anaplastic astrocytoma. Quite suddenly, I was different.

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ICU Surprise!

It was 7:15 on a Tuesday morning. What kind of a Tuesday morning, I could not say. How would I know? There are no windows on 8 North, the adolescent ward at Bellevue Hospital, where I was spending my first month as an intern. There could have been a hurricane outside for all I knew.

What I did know was that in about fifteen minutes a pack of fresh, smiling faces would be arriving, and one of them would bring me breakfast: a toasted bagel with cream cheese and coffee. The long night (or should I say nightmare) was ending, and I could look forward to an easy eight remaining hours of work and then sleep, blissful sleep.

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A Puzzling Impulse

Editor’s Note: This piece was awarded an honorable mention in the Pulse writing contest, “On Being Different.”

My mother has always advised me that it is good to be “different.” She herself, growing up, wanted to be different in both her personality and her fashion. But her wish to be unique is not something I’ve inherited.

Beginning in elementary school, the last thing I wanted was to be different from my school friends—in fact, I wanted to be them. This made things difficult, as I was the only brown person in my primarily white friend group.

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