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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

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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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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

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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

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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

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Burnt

You never forget the smell of charred human flesh. It permeates your skin, your hair, your nose and your mind. It never leaves. You may try to describe it, but there is no equivalent. Not barbecue, not melted plastic, not wood; the smell of the flesh of a once-living human being stands on its own. Even after thirty years, my mind holds the smell in its broken places.

They said it was a Molotov cocktail

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My Homage to Palliative Care

As a medical resident, I found there was something about working on the hospice unit that gave me the urge to wander, to slow down; to put away my stethoscope and truly connect with those around me.

Perhaps it was the peaceful, almost hypnotic melodies of the in-house pianist lulling me in a trance-like state, awakening my curiosity. Her music floated sweetly through the halls, following my path as I drifted, lost in reflection. Perhaps

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Silenced

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

As a maternal/fetal medicine specialist for twenty-four years, I’d always felt that speaking to my patients, peers and the hospital staff was one of my God-given talents. I’m very good at giving bad news to expectant parents about their fetal diagnosis—or I used to be.

All of that changed six years ago, when I had a thyroidectomy for

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Total Immersion

Winter 1979

After my first ever transatlantic flight, my plane touches down at Kingston Airport, Jamaica. As we taxi towards the gate, I think back on the events leading up to this moment.

Earlier this year, I’d resolved to leave my native Scotland. Two years out of medical school, having done my internship and three stints as a locum in several specialties, I still had no idea for my future. I wrote to hospitals from

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Don’t Ever Let Them Break You

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

I was a woman in medical school before there were more women students than men—back when women were expected to be more masculine than the men if they wanted to succeed as doctors, back when the idea that we could report our medical-school professors for sexual harassment was just a twinkle in the eye of someone braver and

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Cherish the Gift

It was a perfect autumn day in St. Petersburg, Florida. The year was 1999, but I still remember that day’s sparkly blue sky. I was driving down a busy street, peering at the signs to locate my destination. Finally I spotted the nursing home, a two-story concrete structure, grey and uninviting. I took a deep breath, parked and walked to the entrance.

Entering the small lobby, I was overwhelmed by the nauseating smell of stale

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His Mother’s Son

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

On a crisp Saturday morning in October, I drove through the early morning fog to the salon for my regular hair-coloring appointment.

I looked forward to these appointments. The hour spent there was my “me” time, during which I enjoyed lighthearted conversations with my colorist, Tina, about movies or fashion while she did my hair. These chats, which took me

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