Together

Repost of a post I wrote for the Global Health Diaries, the blog of the Global Health Program at the University of Vermont Robert Larner M.D. College of Medicine and the Western Connecticut Health Network. Find the original here.

“Here, you can just about always find an internal medicine resident who speaks the patient’s language,” the resident I was working with said, smiling, “It’s amazing.” Another resident had just stopped by to say that one of their colleagues did, in fact, speak that obscure Southern Asian language the translation service did not cover that they needed for an acute patient. I smiled because it was amazing. This was exactly the type of place I’d wanted to train to become a physician.

It was standard that everyone on my teams during my internal medicine rotation had a different accent. And when two of us did have the same accent, our divergent places of origin and cultural backgrounds made up for the lack of difference in how our English sounded. What I liked most, was that in this hospital everyone came from different places – the patients, the nurses, the residents, the physicians, and the other hospital staff. Even in modern America, it’s somewhat uncommon to work in a hospital where the physician diversity almost reflects the diversity of the patients. The hospital where I did my internal medicine rotation in Connecticut was very close to having its physicians reflect the different groups of people who made up the greater community of the hospital.

One thing I found interesting upon returning to Vermont after almost a decade away was how much I missed the accents and the challenge of finding connection across cultural differences I’d experienced during my years in the Washington, DC and Paraguay. There was a subtle feeling of stagnation, almost boredom that crept into my professional life as I began my medical career in my home state. Of course, Vermont has pockets of diversity of all kinds but it’s not like living in an urban area or a foreign country.

After my second year of medical school, I moved to LCOM’s Connecticut campus. As I settled into my new community, I learned that where I lived in Connecticut was a melting pot that buzzed and hummed in ways that more homogenous communities do not.

What better time to dive into a diverse medical community than right after the release of the COVID vaccines? As I listened to the accents of the residents and attending physicians with whom I worked during my Connecticut internal medicine rotation, I was struck by how the medical community is just as connected as the general human community is connected. Afterall, COVID has definitively illustrated how communicable diseases can spread easily around the world. But, also, the speedy development and dissemination of the COVID vaccine showed how we humans can solve dire problems when the minds of people all around the world come together.

There was something unique about how my internal medicine teams came together to solve patient problems. Of course, good medicine transcends culture – some medications and interventions just work. But, in terms of decisions about how to interact with patients and their families, each of us brought our own cultural beliefs and backgrounds to our practice of medicine.

One of the neatest things about working with team members who aren’t like you, is that you’re forced to reflect on your own ways. You’re forced to examine other ways of being. And, in medical school where it’s easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty of disease states and medication dosages – I was grateful to be reminded of the humanness of the residents and attending physicians around me. And, also, to be reminded that my patients brought their humanity with them when they came to the hospital.

Most of the hours spent on internal medicine were dedicated to identifying the best course of treatment for our patients. But as rounds ended for the day, there was often the lucky opportunity to hear what medical school was like in other countries and how physicians from all round the world had come to find themselves in Connecticut. The walls of the hospital seemed less limiting when I realized that it had taken a global community to staff the hospital itself.

Ring Reflection

I held my wedding ring in my palm, feeling the weight of it. I put it on and took it off – making sure it didn’t get stuck and testing the feel of it. It was still months until I’d be able to wear it but, I liked having the opportunity to test it out. It had our favorite mountain range on it; an unassuming range that most overlook. Yet, we’d had many true adventures on that range. By happenchance his favorite mountain was on one end of the range and mine was on the opposite, with a slog of a ridge between them.

Someone asked us recently if we were serious hikers and we laughed. Serious? We’re day hikers who find trails whenever time and the fatigue of busy lives allows. Serious? We like showers, feasts, and fireplaces after miles climbed. Serious? We always seem to be bellowing Star Wars and Mighty Python quotes (between giggles) when those scarce other hikers unexpectedly find us on the trail.

My ring felt light and heavy at the same time. A simple band with so many stories behind it. I didn’t want or have an engagement ring, so the wedding ring was the first tangible reality that we were “getting hitched.” Engagement rings are not for me; though I realize for many they are a joyous aspect of their engagement. A thing I’ve enjoyed about not having an engagement ring is my interactions with people who don’t know me – what does it take for me to tell them I’m engaged? As a medical student I interact with numerous people every day, yet only some of them inspire me to share any part of my story with them. It’s an exercise in exploring exactly how humans create trust and connection during encounters the length of medical office visits. You might be amazed by the number of physicians with whom I worked for weeks yet did not tell I was engaged. Not for fear, but simply for lack of connection or reason to share that tidbit of myself.

I looked at the range as it unfolded as I turned my ring carefully. Ranges represent a journey. My fiancé and I had been on many journeys but, overall, we were on life’s journey together. Our path had thus far been calm yet still varied by ups and downs and mud patches. School had been the overarching limitation, much like a heavy pack, of our life as a couple. I’d been in school our entire relationship, and he’d been in school for most of it. We were friends for years before we started dating. In those years, we weren’t in school and had had a more leisurely approach to hiking and feasting, without the pressure of tests and hard study schedules.

We had in common a love of healthcare, yet our approaches were quite different. To be honest our brains perfectly illustrate the difference between the nursing and physician approach to patients and health. He was the matter of fact, nurturing, and patient human you’d want at your bedside hours upon hours when you’re sick. I was the curious one, driven by a desire to understand and then solve problems. I was not the one you’d want to answer your call bell as you tried to live your life in a hospital. However, I was the one you wanted examining your labs and exploring your history to discover how we might wrestle your health to a stable place. Healthcare is a culture and a lifestyle. It is terrible and amazing at the same time. These days it is more of a tragedy than a comedy, yet there remains in those of us soon to enter the field as newly trained members of the team a sense of hope. Hope that we can help. That, somehow, despite the broken system and so many brands of red tape in our way, we can improve (and maybe even save) lives. Hope is powerful.

I put on my ring, again. I looked at it. It seemed to fit. It felt weird. I was excited. I was hopeful. I looked forward to discovering how the days would unfold after I started wearing it. Like all adventures there was fear in my heart as I stood on the threshold preparing to take the first step. But, also like all adventures, I knew that the first step had to be taken. While never a nomad I’ve always been a wanderer, which inherently means I have stepped from many thresholds. Every first step was filled with anticipation and worry about what would unfold. And, yet, I have never regretted where the road took me. I often reflect on the harsh and beautiful meanders I’ve undertaken. I’ve never wished for a different journey.

I guess there’s something significant about the fact that rings are circles which have no end. A symbol of eternity. I’m a staunch believer that nothing lasts forever. I also believe that the basis of life is change. These beliefs make me curious about what it’ll look like to take some wedding vows and say that this jubilant soul I’ve decided to marry is my forever adventure partner.

My ring felt heavy, but not too heavy. I looked at the mountains depicted there. I wondered what mountains we’d climb in the years to come. What valleys we’d rest in. What ranges we’d prance along taking unruly numbers of selfies because we could. Serious hikers? Perhaps not. We’re just two people who share a deep love of the wild places and exploring them together.

Pride and the Human Experience

The patient was muscular and wore coordinated clothing, both uncommon for someone admitted to the hospital. One of my tasks was to deduce his age from observation; the moment I saw him I knew it’d be hard. He was one of those mystical people who appear much younger than their age.

There are a series of questions we always try to ask our patients in the hospital. They seem silly, but you’d be surprised how often patients can’t answer all of them. “What’s your full name? Where are we? Why are you here? What’s the date?”

This patient made great eye contact. He sat on the edge of his bed with his spine perfectly straight. He used his hands when he spoke. He said his name purposefully. He stated our location without pause.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“I’m here to evaluate the hospital systems. I have a solution for your computers,” the patient said.

I looked at his wife who was sitting in a chair a surprisingly far distance from the hospital bed. She grimaced. “He’s been fixated on the idea of attending a business conference recently. I can’t seem to get him out of it.”

The neurology exam unfolded (an exam looking at nerve, brain, and muscular function). On the nerve and muscle function part the patient did well. He was nibble and coordinated. He was very strong. Especially for his age. However, his cognitive score was significantly below the normal level – low enough that despite our newness to testing cognitive function the other students and I were confident that he had scored low enough to count for a diagnosis of a memory disorder. How long had his memory been declining?

As I and the other medical students interviewed the patient, his wife interjected ever-so-politely when he denied he had any health concerns. She’d taken over multiple tasks to manage their household, slowly. Now she managed all the finances and everything else too. She mentioned that the patient would fly into a rage for almost no reason which was unlike the man she’d been married to for many years. He’d always been a calm man. He’d always been a connector and a successful man. He’d always been so well organized.

His memory and brain function were poor enough that the man could not complete all his activities of daily living (things like paying bills, buying groceries, among other things). This memory loss and brain function decline had been going on for over 6 months. In other words, the patient met the textbook definition of dementia.

~

The other medical students and I told the physician we were working with what we’d learned about the patient. The physician requested only the information that would change his management of the patient. So, in the end, we shared very little about what we’d learned about the patient. What makes medicine interesting (to me) is the story; however, diagnoses and treatment mostly depend on the distilled details of signs, symptoms, tests, and timeline.

~

The physician examined the patient. “What would you do if your house was on fire?” the physician asked.

“I’d go outside,” the patient said.

“Then what?” the physician asked.

“I’d communicate with people I know,” the patient said.

“Like who?” the physician asked.

“Well, I know some firefighters. They’re friends of mine. I’d probably talk to them,” the patient said. The room was silent for a few seconds. The physician watched the patient, but I watched the wife. Most of us would call 9-1-1 if our house was on fire. I hope.

~

When we left the room the physician said, “You didn’t tell me how bad he was!”

“You only asked for the information that would change your management of his condition,” I said.

As we discussed the patient in greater detail, the patient’s wife came out into the hall to show us a picture of her husband when he was still working. In the picture, he was dressed sharply and similarly to the physician I was working with. We all nodded and smiled. She looked at the picture with love, but her body was tense.

~

The vision of the wife holding up the picture of her husband stuck with me. I hoped she knew it was going to get harder. It was possible that her husband would have angry outbursts more frequently. It was certain that his memory and ability to function would decline. And it was unlikely that even that picture of him as a younger, healthy man would propel her through the remaining years of her husband’s decline if she didn’t have help. Dementia takes a toll on the loved ones of the person who is slowly losing their brain. There is no magic pill or procedure to fix the brain when it breaks in the way that causes dementia. Dementia is a progressive disease with a fatal end where, along the way, the person who began the illness is not the person who dies from it. Dementia reduces our ability to function and, also, transforms our personality.

Despite the frustration of memory loss, one thing that this patient illustrated and continues to strike me about people with dementia, is that they keep their pride much longer than many other aspects of their original personality. The vision of this patient sitting tall and answering our questions confidently floated in my mind next to the picture of him when he was younger. Why is pride something the brain clings to even as other functions are lost?

The patient’s wife noted that his outbursts most often occurred in moments when he realized he was forgetting things. In the beginning stages of dementia, many people are aware that their memory is going. I thought about how this patient’s wife must struggle to strike a balance between supporting the autonomy of her husband while also knowing he could not grasp the intricacies of complex concepts and decisions like he once could. When she looked at him, she seemed reflective. Perhaps she was recalling the grand times they’d had together. She also looked tired likely because their life together was more difficult at the time she brought him to the hospital than it had been previously.

The longer I stay in healthcare the more I come to realize that illness, while very personal to the person experiencing it, is not only an individual journey. For patients lucky enough to have friends and family at their side, their disease impacts their family and friends in profound ways. For patients alone in the world, their illness impacts those who care for them whether it be their primary care provider or their care team when they land in the hospital. And much like pride which clings on even as the brain becomes weak, the odd realization that illness is often a social experience lingers in my mind as a dark side of the human experience.

Grateful

I found myself lying on the floor. The sun had set but it was still early – a tragedy of New England once the summer fades. I was not tired or sad. My to-do list was as robust as ever and my goals circled high above my head, seemingly in the clouds. Yet, I was lying on the floor not even stretching. No music, podcast, book, or movie playing. To be fair, I spent a fair amount of time sitting on the floor (my preferred studying location is at my floor desk) so lying on the floor wasn’t that much of a change. It was the stillness and purposelessness of the activity that was unusual for me.

There was a period of my existence when I could not be still and had to always be actively engaged in something. However, the need for constant stimulation dissipated when I was in Paraguay and, I’ve often thought, “good riddance.” I recall my early 20s. I worked fulltime, studied in college fulltime, trained for marathons, went to parties, and built my first career. It was exhausting. It was the way of life I knew. The way of becoming successful. Of fulfilling the American dream. Then I moved to Paraguay where everything seemed so slow. Hours sitting and drinking terere in the shade. Hours spent sitting and sometimes chatting, often staring into space silently, sometimes cooking or napping. I came to enjoy rainy days where it is common for rural Paraguay to shut down. Rainy days were filled with lounging and drinking mate. I precisely remember the moment I realized that when the Paraguayans told me they were doing “nothing,” they meant it. What an odd thing nothing is.

I’ve reached that point in medical school where I’d rather it was over. That point when the hours of studying, sitting in the hospital, trying to learn everything I can, and testing to see if I know enough to care for my patients are quite tedious. I do NOT say this out of despair; I still know medicine is exactly what I want to do professionally. I still love patients and the puzzles they present, but I’m ready to be good at something again. I recall a similar feeling junior year of high school, junior year of college, 6 months into my first professional job after college, and 6 months into my life in Paraguay. There’s a time in all learning curves where it’s truly a terrible slog. That time when you’ve learned an unfathomable amount, still feel mediocre at managing what you know, realize you still have a ton left to understand, and know that it will still be a while before you’re “good at it.” Whatever the mysterious “it” is.

And that’s where the gratefulness comes in. I’m grateful these days because I’ve played this game before. I’m grateful because I know myself better than I did last time I played the game of learning something completely new. I’m grateful because I know already that I’m attracted to activities that seem impossible yet, at some point (after many days of struggle), I do wind up being excellent at them.

So, I found myself lying on the floor. It was junior year of medical school. It was the breaking point. It was about to be a landslide into graduation. In a couple of blinks, I’d start residency. I was closer to becoming a physician than I’d ever been. I lay on the floor contemplating the joy and misery of learning. I thought about some patients who had changed my worldview ever-so-slightly. I thought about the amazing teachings and mentors who I’d encountered while wandering about the hospital wards. I thought about the first day I showed up to work on an ambulance (my first clinical experience), years ago now. “I won’t let you kill anyone,” my chief had said then. I contemplated this. Soon, it would be I who had to prevent patients from dying if it could be done. That was kind of a big deal. I felt humbled. I had much to learn despite having learned so much. I was grateful for this moment of pause while lying on the floor. Life is quite a whirlwind when you seek out challenge. The secret, therefore, is to be grateful for the moments of calm when they come. Even the worst storms have eyes; I remind myself of to look for them.

A Cup of Coffee

I saw the physician I was working with return from the cafeteria with her normal cup of coffee and a second small coffee. She walked by our computer station and into the patient’s room.

The patient had been plagued by a headache that morning when I saw them, not long before the physician arrived with a cup of coffee. The patient had requested coffee because it usually helped with their headaches. Of course, they would get coffee with their breakfast tray later, but that could take hours.

The patient had had a rough year. They’d been in the intensive care unit several times after trying to kill themselves, the first time almost not surviving. They’d lost a child to overdose. Their life had other stress-causing features. The patient was calm when they were under our care, but they’d attacked their nursing staff earlier on during their hospital stay.  

When the physician returned to our computer station, I thanked her for getting the patient a cup of coffee. Little acts of kindness like that are not as common as you’d like them to be. The hospital is full of burnt-out thoughtful people (also known as staff). It’s also full of people with all kinds of diseases. The diseases of the brain can be quite tough. When a psychiatric illness sends people to the hospital, there’s the suffering of the patient and there’s the challenges that they sometimes pose for medical staff. The brain is a powerful organ and when it gets sick it can do all kinds of things. As such, when healthcare staff are overworked (which is always these days) and when the hospital is full (which is most of the time), patients with brain diseases do not always receive the kindness that they deserve from their care teams. But, on that morning, this patient did.

I thought about that cup of coffee. It brightened the patient’s morning. It can be hard to remember the little things we can do to help others. But, on this occasion, the physician I was working with reminded me by setting an example.  

One Example of Sexism in the Operating Room

Often enough to be considered a pattern, the men in the operating room chose to discuss the annoyance of the hospital’s anti-harassment yearly training videos and anti-harassment policies when I was the only female in the operating room with them or when it was just an older female nurse, them, and me. And while I also find the hospital’s anti-harassment training videos frustrating (for entirely different reasons than my male counterparts), I did not appreciate when a surgeon said he could get tips from the scenarios in the video. I did not appreciate his comment (despite his humorous tone) because the truth is that harassment doesn’t just occur in training videos. It occurs all the time and in all settings of women’s lives.

And I found it interesting that these men were complaining when most of them are fathers of daughters, and many are fathers of young daughters. And if the risks weren’t so high for me, I would have asked them the questions I pose now, “How old do you think your daughter will be when she first gets cat-called so badly she feels unsafe? How long riding public transportation will it take before she has a set of rules she follows because of the physical and verbal harassment she experienced from male passengers?” The use of “when” and not “if” is intentional.

You see, women close to me have been strangled and shoved into walls. I’ve sat by as a younger woman asked for advice from an older woman about what to do because her husband raped her every night. I’ve been called by friends in tears because they were cat-called so badly they were shaken. I’ve sat with women as they hid behind dark glasses waiting to get photos of their bruises to use in court. On my first day of one of my first jobs, my preceptor told me how to use the printer and warned me to be careful of our male boss. He left the company before I had to worry about exactly how careful I had to be. By the time I’d worked in healthcare two years, two of my female friends had been groped by male patients. I’ve only been training in the hospital as a medical student for six months and already two female physicians have taken time out of their busy schedules to have lengthy conversations about how to keep my head up and build my career despite disrespect from male colleagues and male patients.

And the reason I would ask the fathers of young daughters the questions above is because I know they love their daughters. And I know they can’t fathom that they are being exactly the type of men who will get in their daughters’ way as they reach for their dreams. And I would ask the fathers of young daughters these questions to remind them that they cannot protect their daughters from the future. And, truth be told, they will likely never know the harassment episodes of their daughters’ life. And I would ask these questions to recommend that they learn how to respect women so that they can set an example for their daughters of what it’s like to be respected. That way, when their daughters do experience disrespect, they know it is not their shortcomings but the shortcomings of the disrespectful one. In other words, it’s worse to be a daughter of a father who doesn’t know how to respect women because he sets a poor example of the male gender. And the behavior of these men in the operating room made it clear that they still had much to learn about respect despite surgeons being among the most highly educated people around. What an unsettling reality to have so many years of education and still lack competency in a basic principle like respecting all humans.

You can look up the statistics in the US for harassment and rape of women (and other demographics) if you’re curious. It’s an easy Google and the numbers are almost as bad as the news that makes the front page of the newspaper. If you want to get really dark, look up statistics related to intimate partner violence. The numbers are horrific. And the numbers always surprise me because all women are daughters and perhaps sisters, mothers, and partners. Fathers and mothers see the statistics and are inclined to tell their daughters to be careful. To not drink too much. To not wear too revealing clothing. To never set down their drink. To not walk alone at night. To not live on the first floor. To lock their windows and doors. To always go out with friends….the list goes on. But the question I always wonder when I hear these statements of warning is why don’t parents just tell and teach their sons that “no” means “no,” “stop” means “stop,” respect applies to all people regardless of genitalia, and that drunk or not you are responsible for your actions? Because all men are sons, and many are brothers, fathers, and partners. It would seem more helpful to prevent the problem of people harassing others, than react to the problem by telling the victims to avoid harassment.

I also find parents’ lectures of caution stifling because they do not address so many of the manifestations of sexism their daughters will experiences. Yes, there is the risk of rape and physical abuse. But for those women going into competitive or historically male professions many of the troubles we face as women are more subtle and persistent than acts of violence. The times we’re told we’re mean or bossy when a male counterpart with the same behavior is considered strong. The times we’re ignored, spoken over, interrupted, and discredited despite consistently being correct. The times (like in the operating room when men decided to complain about harassment protection for women) when we’re othered and made to feel like demanding respect isn’t a right, but a burden we place on our male counterparts. The times we’re underpromoted, underpaid, and passed over simply because we are women. The times we must dig deeper than our male counterparts not because of shortcomings but because our parents taught their daughter to be cautious and taught their sons to be bold.

And as these fathers of daughters discussed sexual harassment policies as an annoying restraint placed on them, I thought about their daughters. I knew when they’d be cat-called. I knew how long it would take on public transportation before they developed their safety rules. And I hoped for those daughters’ sake that they would have men that set an example of what it’s like to be mutually respected. It had made such a difference for me to coexist with many men who looked at me as a person and not some different creature. You see, it’s helpful to know respect is possible because at times it seems like a fictional concept. I thought about those young daughters one day standing where I was. I sent them strength. As much as I hoped the world would change in the years between us, I wasn’t sure it would because these men I stood with in the operating room would still be here. And their sons who had them as role models would be here too.

And I was once again weary, not so much because of the long hours I was spending studying or the fact that I was scoring equal or better to many of my male counterparts in medical school while also getting cat-called and navigating colleague and patient sexism, but I was weary because these men in the operating room, like so many others, stood in the way of my father’s daughter. They stood in my way because they made things more difficult for me than my brothers simply because of my genitalia. None of this was new or surprising, but it did make the hours in the operating room seem especially long. And if the operating room had been a safer place for me, I would have told these fathers the reason I didn’t like the hospital’s anti-harassment videos was because they were triggering for those of us who have been sexually harassed and spoke of a justice system that I have not found anywhere I’ve worked. And I’ve worked in many places.

In Her Memory

I’ve been thinking about an old Paraguayan woman, La Abuela, who died this year before I was able to return and see her one last time. Her eyes were cloudy and her knees swollen when I last saw her. She hobbled short distances holding onto chairs and walls. She was from an era I have only glimpsed through stories shared while gazing out at the world passing by and over snacks. She wrapped her hair in a scarf each day and worn simple skirts and shirts. And always worn sandals. She was the mother of one of the señoras who took me as a daughter during my years in her community and with whom I still often speak.

La Abuela was alive during the Chaco War (1930s). It was a particularly deadly war for Paraguayans. My and her community in Paraguay has a jail. When she was younger, she used to cook for the jailguards. That was in the era of the Chaco War when the jail was full of Bolivian war prisoners. I guess during that era the prisoners could leave the jail and she used to cook for them too. When I lived there, the jail was still active, but she had long stopped serving the folks who lived and worked there.

She told me how it used to be. It used to be that the only way to get to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, was by canoe down the river that ran around our community. It was hard to come and go during those times. When I lived there, it was a simple 2-hour bus ride into the capital—a journey I made frequently.

She told me that later, once the road was constructed, she used to run a bunkhouse for the bus drivers. She would cook for them. She had one rule, no women in the bunkhouse. And if she found out the bus drivers were sneaking in partners, she’d no longer offer them a bed. She was a woman with strict ideas about how things should be.

And there was a period when she worked in Asunción, cleaning homes. That’s how she and the señora who was a mother to me, learned Spanish. Paraguay is bilingual. But the people of rural areas speak more Guarani than Spanish. And the people of the city speak more Spanish than Guarani. And that’s despite the dictator they had for about 35 years during the middle to end of the 1900s who tried to erase Guarani.

La Abuela endured the dictator, her Guarani remained more robust than her Spanish. It was thanks to her time in Asunción that we could communicate reasonably well in Spanish. She’d reminisce of the order that used to exist under the dictator and the chaos of current times. We did not discuss the disappearances and deaths of the dictator’s time. She was a strong woman and she had seen more sadness than I could fathom. But she was more likely to discuss the wind and recent gossip than sadness long past. 

La Abuela and I shared many afternoons sitting on the porch watching the school children walk by and various neighbors run errands. And she had so many stories of getting up early and working hard. Of her garden. Of cooking. Of milking the cows. Of raising children. Of her neighbor’s parrot who spoke so well and was once stolen and then returned. And the hazy day and mango shade would fade to dusk. We’d sit in the evening, still hot but without the beating sun, and we’d have dinner. And the stories would continue interspersed with many long periods of quiet contemplation.

No one knew exactly how old La Abuela was. She was from an era when records were stored in the family’s memory. She had had too many of her own children to remember her exact birth year after her mother died. But the wrinkles of her face and the grayness of her hair and the curvature of her spine spoke of many years of hard work.

I knew La Abuela was fading before she died because her daughter told me. Her daughter told me when her mother became bedbound. In Paraguay families care for the sick. I knew her daughter was caring for La Abuela. La Abuela had 6 children, but only one daughter. It’s almost always daughters who bear the brunt of caring.

I got the tearful message that La Abuela had died from her daughter not long before I had a huge exam. At the time, I didn’t have much left in me to think about death. But these days I see lots of people La Abuela’s age in the hospital. Recently my team helped several families put loved ones on hospice (care for those likely to die in 6 months, usually less). And while medicine can cure many things, it cannot stop death. And I think about La Abuela’s daughter caring for her in her last days. And I know that the care La Abuela received at the end of her life was equal or better than any hospice care the US has to offer.

I think about the thatched roof and the dirt floor of her home, the wood fire on which she and her daughter cooked with smoke billowing around them, and the stories of the ants and mice that sometimes passed through the house. I find myself smiling. Because as complex and sophisticated as medicine becomes, hope isn’t found in the hospital. It’s found at home and in our hearts.

La Abuela built a home large enough for all her children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren, and me to visit peacefully; a home where the mango pits she planted so many years ago were now towering trees offering shade to whoever might need protection from the sun. And as summer slips away I think about that shade waiting for me whenever I can once again visit our community. She won’t be there when I return, but I know her daughter and I will share stories of her life.

Surgeons

I sat waiting for the surgeon I’d work with to arrive at the hospital. Being a medical student involves a lot of waiting. On the wall across from where I sat and next to my surgeon preceptor’s office was a wall of fame, of sorts, of surgeons gone by. The black-and-white photos caught my attention because every single surgeon depicted there was a white male. The irony was that most of the surgeons I would come to respect in the weeks to follow would fit neither or only one of the “white male” descriptors. The surgeon I was waiting for, for example, was neither white nor male. She would single-handedly show me what it meant to be an excellent surgeon.

The operating room is cold. The lights are stark. If you are helping with an operation you “scrub in” (which involves washing your hands in a special way and putting on sterile gloves and a sterile gown). Once scrubbed in, you maintain sterility the entire procedure which includes only touching sterile things and keeping your hands in front of you and between the level of your bellybutton and chest. Bathroom breaks and snack breaks aren’t an option for medical students in the operating room, so I tried my best to do those things before entering the room.

Once the patient is settled on the operating table, they’re put to sleep by anesthesia.  As soon as it’s confirmed that the patient is asleep, their eyelids are closed with tape to protect their eye structures and a tube is placed down their throat to help them breathe.

While the patient is asleep surgery unfolds. All surgeries are done with a team of people, the surgeon is only one member of that team, and the surgery is not successful without every team member. The patient is covered with drapes except for the area where the operation will occur. This is interesting because the humanness of the patient is lost. Their body becomes a workspace once the drapes are placed. It may sound disrespectful, but it isn’t. Rather, the drapes are meant to protect the sterile workspace and maintain patient modesty.

Surgeons are the artists of medicine. Much like carpenters and painters and jewelers and other craftspeople they make their living by using their hands. The difference, however, between surgeons’ hands and carpenters’ hands, for example, is stark. The surgeons’ hands are soft and their fingers nibble while the carpenters’ hands are rough and their fingers strong.

Surgery is all about feel and dexterity. Surgeons tie knots with thin thread to keep arteries from bleeding. They sew with curved needles using plyer-like instruments. During surgery, it’s the surgeon’s hands that impress. Their fingertips can feel the difference between disease and health in tissue. Their hands can somehow hold more tools than you thought possible.

Ask a surgeon about surgery and about the operating room and their eyes become bright. They smile. They draw pictures and use their hands to describe structures. They talk about the neat surgeries and bodies they’ve seen. They talk about how many operations they’ve done. Surgeons are like artists. They love their craft and exude a love for their studio (the operating room).

I would eventually join a surgery led by the surgeon I had waited for by the surgeon wall of fame. A resident and I were helping her. The resident was soon to finish and become an independent practitioner. The surgeon was busy operating; I was holding a camera (used to see inside the abdomen); and the resident was doing something else to help the surgeon. “People will not take you seriously because you are a small female,” the surgeon said to the resident. “Don’t be disheartened. Respect is earned.” The surgeon would go on to discuss the importance of appropriate financial compensation for your work and doing excellent work. I would hear this message about differences and respect several times during my surgery rotation. I would feel why multiple women ahead of me thought they needed to tell me and my colleagues this information. Yet, it wasn’t new information because I, like most others, didn’t make it through my 20s without learning how my different identities help and hinder me.

There are many things that you could die from if it wasn’t for surgeons. But, as lifesaving as surgery is, it is also fraught with risk. Your surgeon can kill you. Having life and death literally in one’s hands is not a light matter, and you see its weight on the shoulders of surgeons when you work with them. The riskiness of surgery is also why the road to becoming a surgeon is a long, hard one. It involves many years filled with unfortunately long workdays. Apart from a grueling training marathon, surgeons have high personal standards for their work. High standards coupled with hard training leave many surgeons with a robust ego.

Egos aren’t all bad. You want a confident, proud surgeon. This is because you want someone who is very good at what they do and who takes pride in their work to operate on you. However, egos can be detrimental too. Too much ego can lead to poor listening skills, lack of self-reflection, and a complete disrespect for others. High-quality surgeons are confident because they are good at their work and love it, proud because they save lives, and humble because they know they are human and will make mistakes. The best surgeons are not only confident, proud, and humble but also curious. Curiosity makes the best surgeons because they not only love operating but, also, dig to the bottom of their patients’ stories, investigate thoroughly any mistake or less-than-perfect outcome, and keep up on the latest research and recommendations in their field.

On our last day working together, the surgeon that made me understand surgery had time to sit with me in her office by the surgeon wall of fame. She gave me some advice and her philosophy on medicine. “It’s nice when patients appreciate your work. You saved their life. But, they don’t have to and that’s not why I do it. I like to help people,” she said. The conversation continued for a bit. “People talk about quality of life. I don’t think it’s fair to say that you don’t want to do surgery because of the quality of life. Quality of life is something you make. For example, right now I pick up lots of call [24-hour shifts]. I do it because I am well compensated but, also, because it is good experience. I like to help people… I like having the cases [surgeries]… But, I won’t pick up call forever. Right now, it makes sense… It’s all about tradeoffs. You can work less and then you make less money… You can set the terms of your work,” she said.

As I left the hospital after my last day working with her, I thought about the surgeon I’d worked with. She was a calm and patient teacher – something that is rare. She had saved many lives. She had seen the inside of the body many times. Her hands could tell the difference between a fat glob and a cancer by feel alone. I’d seen her talking to patients with a patience you don’t find in all surgeons. I’d seen her interacting with all levels of hospital personal with a respect and kindness that was genuine. I’d heard her talk through her clinical reasoning; it was thorough. I’d seen her do surgery; she excelled. She was exactly what I’d call an excellent surgeon. I would have no hesitation sending my patients or family to her because I knew she’d treat them well and operate with precision. She was the first surgeon to go on my mental surgeon wall of fame. After that first day waiting outside her office, I’d decided to construct my own wall of fame (for surgeons and other types of physicians) because the one I’d seen in the hospital was outdated.

Rainy Days

The rain fell. It fell hard. It was a mate drinking kind of day. It was a flood-warning day. And the rain reflected my mood. I’d seen a rainbow just before the rain started. With the rain comes rainbows, but on this rainy day I was feeling the grayness more than the light reflected off the raindrops.

And I thought about a text I’d gotten from a friend not many days before the storm hit my town. She’s a good friend and checks in when the world is in shambles and I’m ignoring the news – which is to say, she checks in whenever something happens in the world I should know about because I almost always ignore the news these days. Despite my efforts at ignorant bliss, I’d heard about some of what she said already. And I felt the same as she: what we were doing seemed pointless when so many people were suffering. And yet, it seemed school would give us skills to better help the world. However, the future is hard to predict.

On this rainy day, I thought about allies and who we can trust. I’d recently seen a patient riddled with cancer. It doesn’t require one moment of school to recognize a dying person. This patient was the picture of death. Their eyes were dull, their movements slow, and their skin ashen. The patient couldn’t eat, yet begged for food, and now their cancer had spread so much that it was making connections between their organs. Their pain was barely controlled. They didn’t desire surgery or treatment; they wanted the pain to stop. They wanted to eat. On one hand, the patient and their healthcare team knew exactly when the pain would stop – the word wasn’t mentioned. The family of the patient, on the other hand, pushed for treatment. Treatment in this case meant prolonging life but not ending the pain and not preventing the eventual end we already knew.

Medicine can’t change fate, nothing can. The family had convinced the patient to continue with treatment, and yet the patient wavered. The patient didn’t want to disappoint their family, but they were so tired. I reflected on their family’s choice to push the patient to continue fighting. I realized that I hope that the folks I call allies are there when I need them, when the going gets tough. And I hope that in the tough moments of my battles they think about what’s best for me, even if it’s not their preference.

I wondered if the betrayal of a family wasn’t so different from the betrayal of a country. In this case, though, the patient wasn’t allowed to pursue their end in peace. The news of Afghanistan was quite the opposite. We’d left so many allies to die perhaps avoidable deaths. And I thought back to the day the Twin Towers fell. I was in 6th grade and now I was in medical school. Seeing images of babies handed to strangers on planes in a hope they’d have a better life didn’t seem like much progress from the smoke and rubble that filled New York City when the towers fell. Politics are complicated, but I wondered about the definition of “progress”; was it simply a fiction invented to instill hope? I wondered about trust; which allies are ones we can trust? I wondered what could have been done differently.

On this rainy day, I thought about the good of the individual and the good of the whole. I’d seen a young patient recently walk away from treatment. It would have been a simple procedure with an 80% chance of completely curing their disease without them even needing to stay in the hospital. Declining treatment is a right. But by saying “no” this patient had most likely condemned themselves to metastatic cancer in under a decade. They’d decided to die of cancer well before they turned 50 because their cancer wasn’t curable once it spread. When they declined treatment, the cancer hadn’t spread yet and we most likely could have cured it.

I weighed my feelings about this patient’s decision against my feelings about people declining COVID vaccines. They were both examples of people making health decisions. It is our right to decide what happens to our bodies. But, choosing to die of cancer compared to choosing to put others at risk of infection feels starkly different. You see, the thing about cancer is you can’t pass it to others. The thing about viruses is that they spread. While you might be just fine after catching COVID; others may die when they’re infected. And it could be you who infects them.

The rain fell and I thought about the nature of the world. I had an exam looming and I wanted to ignore everything else. Like rain drops on a rainy day you don’t have to look that far for sad things in life. It’s also true that with rain comes rainbows. And while I’m certain I like rainbows, I’m not certain they make up for whole rainy days.  And it seems that some of us get more moments with rainbows than others. There’s something about the angle between the sun and the water drops. Not everyone has the same angle.

Engaged

This year I got engaged. It wasn’t a surprise as it came about after countless dialogues while driving between mountains and feasting spots, while plodding along trails below tree line, while standing next to rivers, and while gazing out at the horizon from mountain tops. Like most aspects of my fiancé and my relationship, the timing of engagement was mutually agreed upon and, once decided, a joint undertaking of finding rings, figuring out the legality of things, and planning a wedding unfolded.

It’s funny to me that I’m planning my wedding as I also undertake my third year of medical school. I am a person of action, but usually my time is spent on professional endeavors. I’ve only chosen careers that are consuming, where even when the day is done the puzzles of work linger, tossing and turning in my mind as I go about the rest of my life. I’ve never considered relationships beyond friendship as required or even goals. I’ve always seen marriage as something I’d consider only if someone fell into my life who made me think of it. “Fell” being the key word. I’ve known for many years that happiness and loneliness come from within. The loneliest years of my life I was in a long-term relationship. My happiest times correlate only with my internal state. I fought hard on many occasions when I was single to be allowed to go about my business as I saw fit. And as I think about marriage, the annoyance of having to explain that I am whole without a partner remains somewhere in my skin. But, yet, as I undertake one of the hardest years of becoming a doctor, I am also signing away singleness.

My fiancé and I have discussed marriage and dreamed about growing old together since months after we started dating. There are people who bring out your happiness, who make you laugh more than most, and who force you to think about the world differently. My fiancé is that person for me. And in our short time together, we’ve weathered many storms. There was the first years of medical school – torturous as the hours of study dragged to the future. There was COVID. There were those times when we could have died in the mountains. Where we literally talked each down the cliffs, teetering on an all-to-real edge. There is this current stretch of doing the “long distance relationship thing.” There were the times we shared with family and friends, where it was so easy to feel connected. How seamlessly he fit in with my people (including when my sister and her partner lived with us for a month starting days after he and I moved in together) and how his people made me feel like family from the beginning (starting with the Thanksgiving dinner where I met his parents and everyone in the extended family all at once).

I knew it was time for us to finally start planning our wedding for two reasons. First, since our first marriage conversation we’ve wanted to get married before he follows me to residency and the clock is ticking until that time comes. Second, the realization popped into my head that I couldn’t imagine being happier with another person.

Engagement is neat in the sense that it brings people together. Our families and friends have offered advice and help as my fiancé and I embark on wedding planning. It’s such a fun thing to have a joyous project to work on. Engagement is as odd as it is neat. There are many norms about engagement and marriage which have stood out to me because I rejected them. I didn’t want an engagement ring. My wedding dress will be red. I prefer small, intimate gatherings. My ceremony must be outside. There will be no registry. There will be no escorting down an aisle.

And as I often do for my career, I’ve spent some time reflecting on marriage. I like to ponder why things are important and worth doing. My younger self often thought marriage was giving up something of yourself for someone else. I’m glad to report that that isn’t the case. Marriage is about two very different people taking on a shared adventure, where there are lots of side adventures together and apart. Marriage is just a formal way of saying “I trust you and want you to be my life-long co-hiker no matter how boggy the trail or how craggy the mountainside.”

And as he said when I read him this post, “’Fiancé’ is a weird word, let’s get married already.”