Until Death Do Us Part

A reflection on COVID, not of families grieving or people in danger, simply the emotional toll of an increased number of people dying.

There is no way to capture what it is like to feel someone go from warm to cold. There are no words to describe what it is like when the electricity rushes from a person’s body and everything within them falls still and silent. Even photos, which can capture pain, cannot capture the sensation you have when someone dies in your hands. The realization that they will not blink or speak again sits heavily. The knowledge that their burdens and joys have been left with us, the living, is conflicting.

CPR trainings, nursing school, and medical school try to prepare those of us destined to forge a career in healthcare for the days our patients die. But trainings over plastic mannequins and long-winded discussions over patient scenarios or tear-jerking stories can not prepare you for the moment a soul evaporates.

While not all who work in healthcare see people die, many do. It is part of the job. Most of us know that before we decide to enter the field. Those of us in healthcare put up emotional walls. We become used to knowing people will die. We can see suffering, guess the ending, and then leave the witnessed outcome at the job. But, no matter how strong healthcare workers become, there are times when the emptiness of a cold hand stays with us long after our workday ends.

Some of the best advice I was given when I first started working in the emergency department (ED) was to know where the empty spaces are in the hospital. At the time, I worked nights. This meant that my empty place was the waiting room for radiology because it was open and only used during the day. It was one of the few places I could go in the hospital that was unlocked and had corners hidden from the security cameras and the hallway. Over the years I worked in the ED, I would sit alone in the dark radiology waiting room on several occasions. I’d sit there only for a few minutes before returning to the floor to help the next patient.

As my career in healthcare unfolds, I’ve learned to stop and remain still when one of my colleagues tells me they lost a patient that day. Sometimes they will want to talk through what happened but, more often, they just want to sit with me and reflect silently. There are no words to describe what it’s like to be involved in someone’s death, even if your role was trying to prevent it. And, sometimes, there are no thoughts to describe it either. But, those of us in medicine know that death is part of life. And while the stories of some people linger long after they pass, we’re still glad to have been there to help them through the last stage of their life.

The False Limitations We Put on Despair and Happiness

The pit of despair and the pool of happiness are bottomless. Which means you and I can both suffer and revel in glee to any degree without limiting the pain and joy of others.  

My partner works in the emergency department (ED) and I used to work there too (that’s where we met). From time to time, our non-healthcare friends will ask, “So if I have to go to the ED, what should I say so my wait is shorter?” When this classic question is asked, my partner and I glance at each other and smirk. Anyone who has worked in the ED can tell you that you don’t want to be the first person to go back to a room from the waiting room…because the people who don’t have a wait are the people most likely to never walk out of the hospital.

No one wants to go to the hospital. It is miserable to be there as a patient. But, let’s say you go to the ED because you broke your arm skiing. Your arm is painful. The friend who accompanied you to the hospital is desperately trying to help you stay calm while also struggling to maintain their own composure because the odd angle of your arm makes them sick to their stomach. While you and your friend wait in the ED, there are others who have been in the hospital for days and there are some who have been there moments; in each of these groups of patients there are people who will die during their hospital stay. I tell you this not to diminish the suffering of your broken arm. I tell you simply to say that we don’t suffer alone. Your broken arm is not made less painful by the heart attack and death of Mr. Doe that occurred while you waited in the ED, but his death might remind you that we do not all suffer to the same degree during a particular patch of time.

The same goes for happiness. Some of the joys of this COVID era are the baby announcements, the engagements, the house improvements finally complete, the adopted fuzzy friends, and the fitness goals achieved. My social media feeds are full of cute kittens, puppies, and shiny rings. One of the things I love about all these great landmarks in my friends’ lives is that the engagement of one friend does not detract from the puppy adoption of another. It turns out that my friend with a fiancé can be dreamy about their forever while my other friend can melt with love for their new puppy.

I think the infinity of the pit of despair and the pool of happiness are important to keep in mind. You can take as much as humanly possible from both or either and there will still be a limitless amount for the next person. Not many things in life are that way.

Since the COVID pandemic started and the death of George Floyd there has been arguing among individuals and over the news about the validity and gravity of the pain and inequity experienced by different groups in America. The argument goes some like, “I’ve also had a hard life. I’ve suffered from injustice. So, I don’t see why their hardship and the inequity they face is special.”

The suffering you’ve faced does not neutralize the suffering of others. The suffering you’ve experienced does not lessen the burden of suffering for the rest of humanity. Suffering and happiness have no bounds. The argument for equity is not that your suffering does not matter. Your suffering does matter. The argument for equity is that the systems we’ve developed so far to organize our government, personal lives, education, and work make it harder for certain people to access the pool of happiness while at the same time making the pit of despair easier to fall into. The underpinning of equity is simply that there should be no gatekeeper to happiness and no funnel to despair and, therefore, where they exist they should be eliminated.

COVID-19: Oddity of a Shared Experience While Living Continents Apart from My Paraguayan Friends

Reposting 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 post here.

In early March, I had a Zoom call with the other community health Peace Corps volunteers I served with in Paraguay from 2014-2016. One of my colleagues still lives in Paraguay and he shared his impression of the Paraguayan response to COVID-19 compared to that of the US this spring: “Here [Paraguay] everything is locked down. Police will stop you if you’re on the street to ask why you’re out. People are getting restless because, as you know, here many people don’t eat if they don’t work. But Paraguay is taking this seriously. It’s mind-blowing to hear what’s happening in the United States. It’s hard to believe the news of people protesting masks and attending large gatherings during these times.”

At the time of that comment, the US was still widely debating the validity of masks and COVID-19 cases and deaths were still increasing. Vermont, where I live, was among the US states that chose a more aggressive public health approach with the hope of containing viral spread. For much of the spring and summer most business in Vermont were closed, including gyms and many restaurants. There was no curfew, however school was cancelled or switched to completely online and wearing masks in public places was mandated. The almost complete shutdown only lasted a few months. In late summer, many businesses in Vermont started to open again. Now, schools are back in session (many school districts have a hybrid of online and in-person classes). As a second-year medical student, I have in-person classes twice a week and online classes three days a week. I am required to get a weekly COVID-19 test and report any new symptoms and contacts daily.

The short shutdown and recent opening of Vermont is in stark contrast with the experiences of my Paraguayan friends during these past 6 months. I’ve remained in contact with friends in the Paraguayan community where I worked when I lived there during my Peace Corps service.

This fall, just as in the spring, my friends in Paraguay are mostly restricted to their homes. When my friends and I spoke in early summer, they said that only a few members of their extended family were still allowed to go to work. One friend shared her perspective on Paraguay’s infrastructure, “Our hospitals can’t take care of people if they get sick,” she said. “We are worried.”

In early September, I got a voice message from one of the Paraguayan women who is like a mother to me. She was on the verge of tears. She is the primary caretake of her 90-year-old mother. In my friend’s message she told me that she is scared that her mother will die of COVID-19. My friend does not have a car. The nearest hospital is 2 hours by bus. I don’t know if the buses are running right now.

I’ve returned to Paraguay twice since leaving, once for a friend’s wedding and once to meet a friend’s son before he turned one. I was planning to visit again this year because two of the children I taught when I worked there will turn 15. In Paraguay, 15 is considered an important birthday and some families have a large, wedding-like birthday party to celebrate. The two children turning 15 are like younger siblings to me and I wanted to see them during their special year.

In late September, realizing that I probably won’t travel anywhere outside of the US soon, I made a traditional Paraguayan drink called cocido. It is a warm beverage made from steeped yerba mate (similar to tea) and burnt sugar. It’s a perfect study beverage for fall and it reminds me of my Paraguayan friends and our times together. I shared a video of making cocido with my Paraguay friends. One of them mentioned that I should make chipa, a traditional Paraguayan biscuit that is often eaten with cocido. “I miss chipa!” I said over text. “I haven’t made it because it’s better in Paraguay. I’ve been waiting to visit again so I can have it there.”

My Paraguayan friend responded, “You should make chipa. Don’t wait to come to Paraguay. You’re not going to be able to come for a long time. Things are not well. Lots of people are getting sick here now. We don’t know what is going to happen with this virus.”

My friend’s comment was in stark contrast to any previous conversation we’d had about me visiting Paraguay. My Paraguayan friends remind me often that I am always welcome in their homes. Before COVID-19, every time we talked they asked when I was returning to Paraguay. Now my friends seem too far away to visit. Yet, despite the feeling that travel to Paraguay is morally forbidden during these times, there is something novel about sharing the same public health crisis in my home country as friends abroad. It is not often that the primary public health concern in the United States is the same as that in Paraguay. It is the first time since I’ve left Paraguay that I feel my life is still intertwined with the lives of my friends in Paraguay. It’s not reassuring, but it is interesting to consider how interconnected our global community is despite the borders, oceans, and mountains that separate us.

Resilience

Not so long ago, a couple of brilliant new medical students asked me how many notecards I do a day. “Doing a notecard” means quizzing yourself on its contents and making progress in remembering the information it contains so you can answer test questions on the topic. Talking about the number of notecards we do daily is typical shop talk in medical school—everyone is trying to figure out exactly how to learn the mountain of information that makes up medicine. Almost everyone decides early on in their medical school career that the only way to learn what we must learn is with notecards. But, what is the perfect number to do in a day?

I avoided answering those new medical students’ question about how many cards I do a day. I wanted to help but, it’s an unanswerable question. I am not a robot. If I were a robot, I’d do something like 500-1000 notecards a day. But that’s not how life works. Some nights I don’t sleep well. Some days I have meaningless meetings that take up the best study hours. I gotta eat. I gotta move my body. Some days, it’s just too sunny to stay glued to my desk. Sometimes I’m tired and I retain nothing. Sometimes I get bad news and I’m sad. Sometimes I’m sick. Sometimes I’m on fire and I cruise through notecards like a genius.

We talk a lot about resilience in medical school. Here are the typical discussion questions:

  • What is resilience?
  • Why is resilience important?
  • Can resilience be taught?
  • How does one become resilient?

Thinking about notecards led to me some answers. Here they are:

What is resilience? Why is resilience important?

Google defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” With that definition, it’s obvious that when you’re doing very challenging things like learning medicine it helps to be resilient. Becoming a doctor is a long process and you’re guaranteed to make a lot of mistakes. The only way you’ll make it to the “end” is by becoming an expert in self pep-talks and getting up when you fall.  

Can resilience be taught?

I don’t think so. Not once, ever, has any class, piece of advice, or discussion made me better able to endure a hardship. Every hardship I’ve endured was because I decided to bear it. I had family and friends who supported me along the way, but the healing and “how to do better next time” was mine alone to formulate. But, while I don’t believe we can teach others resilience, I do believe that resilience is learned.

How does one become resilient?

We become resilient by being challenged. The folks who are most resilient are the ones who have endured the most hardship. That’s not to say all people who have faced many obstacles are resilient; it’s just to say that you can’t be resilient if you never face a challenge. If you’ve never failed or been hurt than you can’t know what it’s like to dust off the dirt from a fall and try again. Without challenge, you can’t learn how to adapt your plan as life unfolds new surprises.

This principle is the basis of the answer to the notecard question I was asked. How many notecards do I do a day? I have NEVER, not once, done as many notecards as I hoped to do in a day. Yet, I have passed all my classes comfortably. In fact, not only have I never completed as many notecards as I wanted to…when I started medical school, I didn’t use notecards. Not using notecards was a grave mistake. When I started using them my grades improved by about 5% and, for the first time in my medical career, I had time to exercise, sleep, and socialize a sustainable amount. I switched to notecards ¾ of the way through my first semester of medical school. I was terrible at making notecards. But, I gave them a fair trial because I knew how I was studying before notecards wasn’t working. I had two choice at that point: sink or swim. Swimming involves adaptability. I decided I would rather be an otter than a rock in the deluge that is medical knowledge.

Deciding to use notecards may seem trivial until you consider that I’ve bet around $100,000 (so far) on becoming a doctor. It seems trivial except when you consider that it took me 6 years (of work) from the time I decided I wanted to become a physician to the day I got to decide how to study my medical school material. It seems trivial until you realize that I still have at least 5 years, probably 8, and many licensing exams between me and practicing medicine. The stakes are high. I could have failed upon switching to using notecards. But, I thought it was worth a try and I knew I would fail if I kept up what I was doing.

This past exam (fast-forward to my second year of medical school) was the first time I finally studied all the notecards I’d made for an exam. It’s been a little less than a year since I starting using notecards to study. I’m way better at using notecards than when I started. But, my journey isn’t over. This spring I take the biggest exam of my life (my first board exam – a national exam everyone who becomes a doctor must pass). How well I do on that exam heavily influences what residencies I can apply to and, ultimately, what type of doctor I’m allowed to become. It’s scary. My daily notecard count is only one part of how I will prepare for that exam. The number of notecards I did daily last year, over the summer, and now is different. How many notecards I do today will be different from how many I do each day when I’m in the middle of studying for that looming board exam.

What challenges and failure come to show us is that things can be done in many ways. They also show us that we can only control ourselves. For example, I can’t change how much information I’m expected to know for an exam. I can decide how to learn the information. Resilience is not complaining about something that never could have been. It’s about deciding to make your dream reality. It’s about jumping into the flood, scared out of your mind, with a willingness to evolve until you get to where you’re meant to be.

Betrayal

I didn’t cry but my heart was heavy in November 2016 when I carefully folded up the American flag I’d always hung in my room and placed it safely in a box, making sure it never touched the ground. I folded it the way my father had taught me, which was the way his father (WWII and Korean war veteran) had taught him. As I folded the flag, I looked for tatters suggesting it needed a proper retirement—it didn’t. I swore that I would not hang the flag again until my country made me proud. Until my country no longer betrayed the promises on which it was founded.

The election in 2016 felt different than the others I’d experienced. There was a pit in my stomach about the future after November 2016 even though as a dreamer I am always hopeful about the future. It was uncharacteristic of me to care much about politics. I felt heavy. I told myself to wait and see how things unfolded. I told myself that US institutions were strong so it was unlikely that much would really change.

I was raised to believe the reality of the American dream. I took it as actuality that you could do anything and be anyone if you tried hard enough. However, as I grew older, I came to wonder if that was actually true.

My skepticism of the American dream increased as I worked through college. We all have our own challenges, but it’s hard not to notice how easy it is for rich kids to do unpaid internships and lead organizations that set them up for great success after graduation while poor kids work and try to fit in the internships and organization memberships they know are key to getting their dream job. That’s if the poor kids were lucky enough to go to college at all.

This year I no longer question the American dream because the beat of the American dream fell silent as a heart monitor goes flat when a heart stops forever. What took the place of my old belief that in America hard work is rewarded and anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps was a bitter taste. The bitterness was a truth I’d always known but refused to look in the eye: the American dream is an illusion. We don’t all have an equal crack at reaching our dreams. Some of us can climb, but the journey is largely about luck. Hard work pays, but being born the privileged sex and gender, class, and color pays more.

In the past 4 years I’ve seen America steal children from their families and put them in cages and call it justice. I’ve seen men supported and allowed to take positions of power despite overwhelming evidence that they had sexually abused women. I’ve seen the armed forces deployed against citizens, and I’ve seen military members accept that deployment.

I’ve seen so many people of color jailed and killed in the name of justice we could erect a memorial like that to the Vietnam War on the National Mall with their names and it would be more impressive than any war memorial. Just like for the soldiers who died in Vietnam, the people who were killed for their skin would have their names written on panels of black stone. Roses and notes would rest at the panels’ base, a tribute to the years the humans named there weren’t allowed to live and to the loved ones who miss them. When I lived in DC I visited the National Mall and Arlington Cemetery often. I visited these war memorials because it seemed the worst fate was to die and be forgotten. To have your name unspoken and your life discredited.

I’ve seen open fire on people in schools, places of prayer, and movie theaters. I’ve seen cities stopped by a pandemic, a virus that continues to kill and, yet, Americans would rather endanger grandmothers and grandfathers (possibly murder them with their breath) before wearing a mask.

I’ve seen taking part in global organizations and dialogue, environment protection, and offering refuge from persecution declared as no longer American.

Every time I’m bold enough to open the news I see more evidence that the American dream is not only dead but was never alive. Have we always been so cruel and hateful toward people different from us?

And I am angry. I know anger accomplishes nothing. Yet, as it becomes clearer how far America is from a country whose flag I’d proudly wave, I am angry and weary. I’m angry because so many of the horrors we’re seeing unfold today have always been there unaddressed. I’m angry because those in the highest places of power are clinging to the status quo which is one where only a select few are favored. I’m angry because the institutions I thought I could trust are weak.

Somehow, in the middle of a pandemic that has killed many globally and protests demanding equity long overdue, we must continue to live our lives. To love, work, study, and play. In some ways it is so easy to continue as if life were normal, even though 2020 has exposed many things that need our attention. Despite the desire and freedom to ignore what has been exposed this year, it would be an error to pretend that everything is okay. Should we choose to punt addressing our problems to a distant future, then it is not just the American dream but also America that has died. America is a place where all people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and our country isn’t there yet.

I can’t help but reflect on how my life in a rural town is so different from that of someone living in NYC were people died in droves from COVID-19 and more people than the population of my hometown marched the streets to protest violence and inequity these past months. And just the tranquility of my life this year compared to many of the lives led by NYC dwellers illustrates how far we have to go to ensure that we all have a crack at life, liberty, and happiness.

As I slide closer to my second year of medical school, I continue to wonder what more I can do and what my role is in making America a place I’m proud to call home. When I think of action I am less angry, still weary, and very determined that though it will be a long journey, I might fly my country’s flag again. And while I don’t think I’ll live to see the American dream feel real again, I hope that we will lift ourselves closer to a society where every person is judged more for their work and kindness and less by factors present at birth such as the wealth of their parents and the color of their skin. I think if we can move forward, change, then we might call ourselves Americans with the meaning the American dream implied.

Holding a Brain in Your Hands

My first semester of medical school I went to the anatomy lab 2, 3, 4, sometimes more times a week. Sometimes twice a day. In our anatomy lab we were split into groups and each assigned a cadaver for dissection. Cadavers are people who donated their bodies upon death to science, we call them “donors” in our lab. The 20 donors in our lab were once 20 people who had the vision to let us, 120 aspiring doctors, disassemble the human body so that we could intimately understand how it fits together.

The idea of cutting apart a human, even if they are dead, is disgusting to most people—including all of us who showed up to anatomy lab the first day. It never got easier to dissect my donor. I spent a little bit of each hour in lab wondering who my donor had been in life and if she had any idea what happens in an anatomy lab when she decided to donate her body. Yet, now that I’m done with anatomy lab and have had months to stew on my experiences there, I can’t imagine not dissecting a cadaver as part of my training to become a physician. Let me share one, relatively low on the gruesome scale, experience to illustrate how profoundly moving and informative it was to be able to explore a human body piece-by-piece.

Toward the end our months in the anatomy lab it was time to open the skull and see the brain of our donor. Weeks before that we had dissected the spine, opening up the vertebral column so we could see what the spinal cord looked like. Each week of lab leading up to the day we opened the skull was spent tracing nerves from the spinal cord and brain to each section of the body we had examined. Nerves look like strings, specifically they look like white, cotton strings soaked in oil. We spent many hours memorizing the names of those strings (the nerves) and their paths through the body.

So, on the day we finally got to open the skull we understood how the brain was connected to every muscle and structure in the body. We knew intellectually how they were connected but, also, physically how they were connected. Our hands had followed the course of many nerves until their routes were as familiar as the path of a zipper on a favorite jacket. We could imagine the journey of the nerves through the body without seeing them. Hence, we felt ready, excited, and nervous to meet the globe that controlled it all. We were ready to see the brain.

You can hold a brain in both your hands. It fits there comfortably. It weights about 3 pounds. In other words, it’s about the size and weight of an average cantaloupe. Such an unassuming structure for the burden it carries. It is our brain, in the end, that makes each of us who we are. It shapes our personality, our feelings, and our behavior. Without our brain we simply take up space. We can’t even breathe.

When I held our donor’s brain in my hands, I knew it would be the first and last time I held a human brain. I didn’t hold it for long, but I felt its weight. Its actual weight as gravity pulled down on it, but also the weight of the life it had traveled. Whoever my donor had been in life, it was the brain in my hands that had guided her. Every person has a brain something like the one I was holding. We each have our own globe of cheese, an organ science still doesn’t know much about, that pretty much decides everything in our lives. To think, I was holding the center of human nature in my hands. The feeling isn’t something I’ll forget.

When They Told Me She Had Died

The years pass quickly. Already, Paraguay hasn’t been home for 4 years. But my mind often still wanders back to the 27 months I lived there. When I see the sun dancing in the summer I am always transported to the homes of several women who made my time in the land of the Guarani exceptional. I think of those women when I drink my mate each morning. Even when I’m excited about the amazing things I’m doing and discovering in the US, part of me longs for our quiet mornings, afternoons, and evenings together sitting under the mangos or by a wood cooking fire. Since living in Paraguay, I’m always pulled between my type-A, American self and the person I got to be in Paraguay.

A few years ago, I received a text from a Paraguayan friend telling me a tía (an aunt) had died. It took me until I visited Paraguay later that year to confirm who the friend was talking about because many people in Paraguay use many names. My friend had used a name for the tía that I did not know.

The woman who had died was a dear friend of mine. We were one of those odd pairings of a woman in her 20s and a woman in her 60s. The name I called her was Estelva. She is the quietest heroine of my Paraguayan story. She could easily be forgotten, but to leave her out of the story would be to leave a gaping pit in my journey. Today, the sun is shimmering on my living room floor and reminded me of her.

Estelva was a woman of work. She was a baker and I’d joined her many afternoons to help bake chipa, cake, and pastries. For most of my time in Paraguay, she cared for her bed-ridden husband. He was very sick. He had a lung disease from working in the quarries and perhaps other ailments. She also helped support one of her daughters and her daughter’s 3 sons. One of the 3 sons was a hard worker as was the daughter, but Estelva’s work ethic was unlike anyone I have ever seen. She’d rise early and she’d still be working when I walked home after 10pm at night. Her feet and body would ache and she would continue, hardly a word of complaint.

Estelva was a quiet woman. We’d spend many afternoons with few words. She struggled to understand my accent and I hers. We didn’t really need words. She was one of those people who could just feel what was going on. Early on in my time in Paraguay, I needed somewhere safe. Somewhere calm. Because, where I was living wasn’t any of those things. No, I wasn’t in danger…but, the first few months I lived in my Paraguayan community were hard.

Estelva had rescued a giant dog left behind by a previous Peace Corps volunteer. The dog was 4 times larger than any other dog in the town and had no business being in Paraguay, but she had rescued it anyway. She fed it well and spoke to it often. She loved that dog, just as she had loved the volunteer who left it. She would tell the dog often that her mother, the volunteer who left it, would visit them soon. That volunteer has not visited since I’ve known the community.

Often when I arrived we’d drink terere together on her patio. We’d work hours. We’d knead chipa dough, sweating from the heat that streamed in through the tin roof of the bakery. On rainy days, the tin roof was deafening as the raindrops pounded down. The walls of the bakery had recipes taped to them, written by the same volunteer who left the dog. Estelva never used nor needed those recipes. The bakery was part of a cooperative that included bakers and other crafts women like the women who wove hats, baskets, and fans from palm leaves.

Estelva ensured that I never left her home empty-handed. She’d send me with chipa or pastries we’d made. She’d send me with guava jelly she’d cooked in a huge pot over a roaring wood fire in her patio.

Many times I would sit and do the rosary with Estelva at the alter that was set up in the corner of the bakery. We were usually doing the rosary on behalf of her husband, praying for his health to improve. Sometimes when I arrived, she was dressed in her nicest shirt and we had to cancel because she was preparing to bring her husband to the hospital (a 2-plus hour bus ride) because he’d gotten worse during the night.

At the end of my time living in Paraguay, her husband died. It was both sad and a relief. Estelva’s life had centered on caring for him for many years. It’s hard to describe the toll caretaking takes on a person, especially in a place where there are no resources and in a family where all money is hard-earned and travel in the sweltering heat is by bus. I remember Estelva’s sadness during the days of prayer after her husband’s death. I also remember seeing her look rested for the first time in the weeks thereafter. She even slept in until 7am some days.

Sometimes, when we were sitting waiting for the next project, Estelva would tell a story.

On one occasion Estelva stared out across the room, glancing at me, but mostly lost in her thoughts. “The children always loved him,” she said of her husband. “He was so loving and boisterous. It was so easy for him to show love.” She paused. “I have never been that way.”

Her words settled like dust, floating on sunbeams to the floor of the bakery. Her love was a quiet, diligent one. The kind of love that makes you strong. The kind of love that if you don’t look, you’ll never notice just how big of a difference it has made in your life. She was right. Her children and community would always think of their fond memories of her husband.

But, how would I remember her? Would I remember her? I knew she was asking me those questions. And, I had known my answer long before she’d asked.

How I Came to Discover That Pronouns Are Like Ants

On my first day of medical school they handed us our badges and had a table full of pronoun ribbons (so, she/her, he/him, they/them) that we could stick to the bottom of our badges. There was a strange pressure to take the ribbons and they were briefly explained, but the whole thing felt forced, abrupt, and confusing. In those overwhelming hours of my first day of medical school, the pronoun thing felt like an attack and was unexpected. I didn’t know that several schools across the country were making moves to include pronouns in name tags and email signatures until I picked up my badge that day.

I had no interest in walking around with “she/her” pasted on my badge. Those are the pronouns I use, but why should I walk around with them on my badge? I also didn’t like the ribbons themselves. They were impractical. They stuck to the bottom of my badge, making it longer and heavier. I was concerned that this extra volume and mass would make my badge more likely to hit me in the face when I was doing compressions. Also, the fabric couldn’t be cleaned with an alcohol wipe like the rest of my plastic badge. It’s important to sanitize things in healthcare.

I decided to not add the ribbon to my badge. But, the idea of pronouns stayed with me. It bothered me. It bothered me that I was uncomfortable by the idea of wearing my pronoun. Why was it uncomfortable to me? Why had some people said we all should wear pronouns? I decided I needed to find answers to those questions.

I would come to learn that pronouns are an important topic because there are people who are either given the wrong one by society and/or who don’t identify as a he or a she and, instead, identify as a they. Using the wrong pronoun is a form of misgendering (assigning someone the wrong gender) and often can be considered a microaggression against that person. Many of the people who use “they” pronouns consider themselves nonbinary, which means that on the spectrum of male to female they don’t fall on one extreme. These groups of people, those that use pronouns that weren’t assigned to them by their parents, often endure others using the wrong pronoun. The idea behind having everyone declare their pronoun was to normalize talking about pronouns and to reduce our tendency to assume we know other people’s gender identities simply by looking at them. All the above made sense to me. I also thought we all should be able to use whatever pronoun we want. But, for some mysterious reason, I was still hesitant to add pronouns to my name badge.

I talked about the pronoun label with some friends. I talk about it with some people I love who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. I thought about the patients I had worked with when I worked in the emergency department and on the ambulance. I thought about the patients who were always called the wrong pronoun. I thought about how thankful they were when I asked about their pronoun or used the right one. I thought about how awful I felt to have someone be thankful that a did something as basic as use a pronoun correctly. Pronouns are pretty basic grammatical elements. But, of course, using the right pronoun isn’t about grammar, it’s about respecting people’s identities…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Time went on. I put my pronouns on my badge and then I ripped them off again. I kept thinking. What kind of message would wearing a pronoun send? Could I back up and live up to that message?

For all of this year I didn’t include a pronoun on my badge or my email signature. But, my pronoun abstinence wasn’t passive. I kept thinking and observing. A resident with a pronoun pin (not a ribbon) on his badge came and talked to one of my classes. I liked the pin way more than the ribbon. My school had a guest speaker come and talk about being a trans man. His stories about navigating healthcare were unpleasant and demeaning. I’d never want similar experiences and I would never wish the emotional pain he experienced on any of my patients. Then, later in the year, I learned that someone close to me started publicly using they/them pronouns.

As I kept thinking, I realized that I’ve also spent a fair amount of time thinking about pronouns in the past. Why? Because people mess mine up all the time. Not when they see me—my born sex, presentation, gender identity, and societally assigned pronouns and gender have always matched (that means I’m cisgender)—but almost 40% of the time when correspondence is over email people get my pronoun wrong. Why? Because people don’t read carefully. My name is “Jett,” but many people read it as “Jeff.” What’s more, “Jett” is a gender-neutral name. People guess wrong often. I find it funny how many people get my gender wrong because of my name over email. It does not hurt me when people think I’m Jeff the he/him in an email. It doesn’t bother me because I know they’d correct themselves and apologize when they meet me. I know this because that has happened to me on several occasions.  

But, what if people didn’t apologize? What if people got my pronouns wrong when they talked to me, face-to-face? That is the questions I realized I needed to consider. Upon thinking, I realized I’d correct them and be annoyed. I know I am a woman. I’m proud to be a woman. Considering that I am a woman and I want others to see me as a woman too, I came to realize that it does matter to me that people use she/her pronouns when they talk about me. If everyone called me “he/him” I think it would be like a bunch of ants invading my home. One ant (one pronoun) is very little and its bite would sting but it wouldn’t cause much damage. But many ants are quite destructive and add up quickly.

If you’re like me and fit what society assigns you, you’ll never know what stress or pain it causes to be misgendered. But, I challenge you to consider how you’d feel if every time someone talked to you they called you the opposite pronoun from the one you use. That means, if you’re a she/her they called you a he/him (or vice versa). I challenge you to sit and actually think about it. How would you feel?

My last month of school this year I decided to join the pronoun presenters. I ordered she/her pins for my badge. It was $2 a pin, less than a pack of gum to fix the ribbon problem. I decided to order those pins because I know there are people out there who society continually labels with the wrong pronoun.

This country has been talking about systems used to suppress and control certain groups of people a lot lately. One of those systems is language. One of the methods to harm people is forcing them to answer to a pronoun that is not correct. I think of it this way, when someone comes to me and tells me they have a headache I do not say, “no, you have foot pain not a headache.” If I can’t know where someone hurts better than they do themselves, how can I possibly know their gender identity better than they do? How can I know better than they do their correct pronoun?

I decided to get pronouns for my badge because I work in healthcare. I think as a physician I should be a life-long learner. That doesn’t only mean I will keep up with the latest medical knowledge. It also means that I will continue to learn more about the different people who are and will be my patients. In the end, we use medicine to treat people. The key word is “people.” And the identities each person has are an important part of who they are and is, therefore, relevant to their overall health.

Now, after thinking about pronouns for a year, I still make mistakes while using they/them pronouns. I make mistakes when using pronouns that are different from what I originally assigned a person before asking what their pronouns actually are. But, I make fewer mistakes the more I practice. And I do practice. It is important to me that my patients, and anyone in my life, can be who they know they are, not who society has said they should be. So, when I wear my pronoun the message I wish to convey is that I want a society were everyone can use the pronoun that suits them whether or not it is the same pronoun their parents used for them as a baby. The idea I want to support is that each of us has to do our part to be accepting of people who are different from us. It is one thing to say that all people have a right to life, liberty, and happiness and quite another to create systems that support that and to act as if all people have those rights. Getting pronouns right is one tiny thing each of us can do to start to change our biased language system. Remember, the thing about ants is that their power comes from numbers not size.

On Love

When from out of the blanket burrito you’ve created, like extra salsa, your blue eyes emerge, blinking and dazed as if they’ve never seen light. You seem stunned as if you didn’t expect the sun to rise as it has every other day. I’m glad you’re here.

When we each sit, heads bent over our studies, the sun dancing across your hair and alighting on our plants—we created quite a jungle house when we moved in together—I smile before diving back into the world of medicine.

When you scamper away, a mountain goat of a human, taking off when you see a steep incline with rocks on the trail ahead, I chuckle. I’ll find you at the top of the pitch, eyes glistening, waiting. Maybe a kiss before we forge onward. And when we get to the summit we see the world unfold before us. Each of us thinking our own thoughts, but knowing somehow our thoughts fit together like the parts of an ice cream sundae—dazzling all on their own but grander together.

When I’m sitting on the couch, studying or writing, and you ask “Are you hungry darling?” As I light the candle for the dinner table I’m already full.

It’s those times when love seems like such an obvious thing. And, as happy as I am alone, I’m glad you decided to journey with me.

My Apples Are to His Oranges

In undergrad I worked fulltime and schooled fulltime. There were a few years where I didn’t have a day scheduled off. (I took some, of course, with unpaid vacation.) I pieced together different jobs and internships that would fit around my classes. I worked many holidays because we got time-and-half.

A large period of that time, Starbucks was my main job. I worked the opening shift because it allowed me to have most of the day to study and do internships or whatever else needed to be done. To open the store, we arrived at 5:30 am and unlocked the door at 6 am.

I eventually became a shift manager at Starbucks. That meant I oversaw the floor during my shift in addition to being a barista. It was my job to make sure everyone got breaks, money was handled correctly, and everything else that needed to happen happened.

I had one barista who was a kind guy and a good worker, I’ll call him Joe, but he used to cause me the greatest frustration. If he was scheduled to open the store with me, he almost always came late. Not a little late, but 30, 40, 60 minutes late. I couldn’t open the store until he got there, because our store policy was you need two people to open. This meant we opened late when he arrived late.

I usually asked him why he was late. The answer was usually something about the bus. Or something about the metro. And I thought I understood. Public transportation in Washington, DC is not reliable if you need to get somewhere on time. My solution was always to take a train earlier than the one scheduled to get me there on time. I wondered why Joe didn’t do that too. As it was, I got up way before 5am to get to work on time. That was after staying up until 11pm studying. I did it, he could too.

One day, I was talking to another shift manager about Joe’s tardiness. The other shift manager laughed. “Yeah, it annoys me too,” he said. “But the metro doesn’t open until 5am. There’s only one early bus he can catch. If he misses it there isn’t another one anytime soon thereafter and there isn’t an earlier one. And, if the bus runs late, he doesn’t catch the first train once the metro opens. He’ll be late if he doesn’t catch the first train. You know how the metro is.”

So, basically, Joe needed a perfect storm to get to work on time if he was scheduled to open with me. I thought about it. I didn’t know exactly where Joe lived, but if he had to take a bus to get to the metro and then take the metro he lived far away. The math didn’t add up. He was probably spending his first hour of wages on the bus and metro. The metro charged you by distance.

“So why doesn’t he move to a store closer to his house?” I asked.

The other shift manager shrugged. “There probably isn’t one.”

Starbucks was everywhere in DC at that time. In fact, I’d switched stores shortly before becoming a shift manager because I moved apartments. I switched stores because a 45-minute walk at 4-something in the morning was too much. I moved to a store that was a 15-minute walk from my house.

We’ve been talking about systems since George Floyd’s death.

The woman who ran my store was an immigrant and a brilliant businesswoman. She was supporting her kids back in her home country. She was trying to save up enough to maybe, someday, bring them here. Save up enough to give them the education and experience she wanted them to have. She was gunning for a promotion to regional manager or something like that. She was strict but she understood her employees. Joe was a good worker. She wasn’t’ going to fire him for being late. She knew that if she scheduled him for opening shift, he’d be late. She weighed her options when she made the schedule.

Every person had a story who worked in that Starbucks. And what I learned as I went, was that I had to be forgiving. I had to ask why before writing others off. I had to try to see things from their view, even though our lives were amazingly different.

The system was set up so I could live 15 minutes from where I worked.  I lived a 5-minute walk from the metro. I had multiple bus lines I could take. My life felt hard, but it was nice to know that there were lots of transportation options close to my home and I could find employment near where I lived.

When I left Starbucks, my boss asked if I wanted her to put me on temporary leave. If she did that, it would be easy to come back if I needed a job. I said “no.” I was leaving for a paid internship. The internship was a door to a job. I knew if I worked within the system, I’d get a job when I graduated that used my degree. It was a safe bet. As for Joe, he was trying to save up money to go to school. Unlike me, he didn’t have the option to take out student loans. He wanted to study, but he had to work first. The difference between us was subtle: I studied and worked around my classes while he worked and hoped to fit classes around his work.  

When the system is designed for you, you can trust that things will usually line up nicely. When the system isn’t designed for you, you find yourself working at a shift job where it costs you your first hour of wages to get there using unreliable public transportation. Think about that. Working a whole hour to just make back the money you spent on transport to get there. When the system isn’t designed for you, it’s not a safe bet or an easy decision to leave a job for education. School is important but it doesn’t pay the bills.

We all face setbacks and challenges. That’s life. But those challenges are apples to oranges when you factor in how the system is designed. Let’s move toward a time when my complaints can be compared apples to apples with Joe’s.