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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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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

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My Doctor Joe

Winter 1961

I recall Dr. Ulrich making a house call that night to our residential shoebox on Longview Avenue in Akron, Ohio. My parents were renting the pint-size place. My mother loathed visiting cemeteries and talking about death, so I suspect she felt edgy living across the street from the roomy Sherbondy Hill Cemetery.

That freezing night in 1961, I lay in my parents’ bed, a big bed that swallowed up my little-boy body. I wanted to

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Kids Always Know

This is a story about failures. First, it’s about my inability as a pediatric hospice physician to do the one most important job in this tender space. Second, it’s about well-meaning, loving parents’ inability to do their part in that job.

Jacob was a smart, funny, elementary-age kid, great with Legos.

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The Birthday Party

Forty years ago, I experienced a miracle—the first of many in my nursing career. I was about six months into my first nursing job, in the neonatal ICU at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. It was there that I met baby Jonathon, and it was his mother who made me a true believer.

Jonathon had come to us with severe kidney disease. He looked sickly: His skin was very pale—translucent even. He acted like a healthy infant,

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What Remains From the Pediatric Ward

I wake up in a hospital isolation room, where everything smells weird. It’s 1967 in Galway City, Ireland, and I’m four years old.

The worst smell is the antiseptic—a word I don’t know yet. The second smell is the crayons and newssheet coloring books on the nightstand. Christmas is gone, so how can these be for me?

The family lore would say that I spent nearly seven weeks in that hospital. That’s forty-nine days or 1,176 hours’ worth

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Caught in the Crossfire

I’ll call him Rocky. In a drive-by incident, his father was killed, and Rocky, age one, was shot multiple times.

His initial resuscitation was heroic—he received medicines to support his blood pressure, underwent emergency surgeries and was still attached to machines to support his breathing—but by the time I met him, the drama of his shooting had receded: He and his medical team had settled into a stable routine.

Though I suspect that the team had

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The Wizard and I

He’s wearing a Yankees T-shirt, an EpiPen holstered to his belt like a lightsaber. We’re old friends. Trevor has been my patient for four years—more than half his life.

This will be our last visit: After forty years, I’m retiring.

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Dear Worried Mother

I can’t stop thinking about you.

Last night, at about midnight, the phone aroused me from my happy slumber. It was Vance, the on-call resident, needing advice from me, as the supervising physician, on how to help a worried mother—you—who’d called our family health center’s after-hours service about your daughter’s worsening asthma.

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The Other Public-Health Emergency

It was March 2020, and COVID was coming. The virus hadn’t yet reached my small suburban community in Pennsylvania, but already businesses were waning, streets were emptying, clinics were closing. Fear was widespread.

A collective refrain sounded: “Shut it down”—the university, the restaurants and, most of all, the public schools.

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Sounding the Alarm

Sounding the Alarm

For most medical students, the fourth year is a time of coming into our own. We’ve completed our clinical clerkships, passed our first board exam and begun applying to residencies in our hoped-for specialties.
We also get our first taste of independence as clinicians.
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Holiday Concert

Holiday Concert

The door opens, we pause again.
Voices singing in the lobby drown out
her parents and the specialists alike.
I think they added bells this year,
the cheerful carols carefully chosen
to celebrate the season, not a faith.
A guitar picks up a riff, the same
one my daughter played so long ago
in her one embarrassed solo
on the school stage. A song both

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