After working 24 hours on call in the pediatric ICU, I was exhausted. I wanted to sleep, but friends had recently been reminding me of theÂ health benefits of breakfast, soÂ I dragged myself to a local diner for breakfast and sat at the counter next to a father and his little daughter. “We graduated from the booth to the counter,” he was explaining to the waitress, trying to hide his pride. The little girl looked shyly up, swiveling playfully on the rotating seat as she stretched up to rest her elbows on the countertop. I tried not to glance at them too much, but I was overwhelmed and fascinated by many simple things: the widening of her eyes at the stack of pancakes, the delighted silence as she chewed her way through the syrupy mess, the polite sips of tart orange juice from a well-worn cup.
The hospital tends to “stick” or creep into the outside world. That weekend I had been having nightmares, imagining what it would be like to suddenly find that my eight year old daughter was brain-dead, or my ten year old son was killed in a car accident, or my brother’s cold turned out to be leukemia.* Â Random and otherwise innocent sounds would make me think of beeping monitors and noisy breathing machines. It seemed difficult to completely extract myself from the hospital. Even when I went to the DMV, the inspector saw me in scrubs and asked, in an attempt to connect, “Do you work in the hospital? Â Have you seen dead people? . . . Are some of them children? That must be hard; I can’t imagine.”
I remembered a night spent in the ICU as a medical student, rushing to leave the hospital after a long shift:
Of my sixÂteen hours on shift, there were two remainÂing. Then one. Five minÂutes. Finally my resÂiÂdent disÂmissed me. â€œGo get some rest,â€ he said kindly, scanÂning the comÂputer screen and mechanÂiÂcally punchÂing in orders. â€œAll thatâ€™s left is paperÂwork. NothÂing more for you.â€ As per medÂical stuÂdent etiÂquette, I thanked him, wished him a good night, and strode out of theÂ ICU. I walked down a quiet hallÂway, panÂeled on both sides by glass. The view on the left faced out into the cold, dark, northÂeastÂern night. The right faced the surÂgiÂcalÂ ICU waitÂing room, which remained lit with muted, tubuÂlar fluÂoÂresÂcent bulbs. I glanced in and was surÂprised to see someÂone still waitÂing inside.
She was sitÂting alone. Her eyes were puffy and red, but dry. They looked as if they had been that way for a long time. A thin hosÂpiÂtal blanÂket was draped careÂlessly around her shoulÂders, which were hunched forÂward with a palÂpaÂble heavÂiÂness. Her motionÂless presÂence made the room seem more staÂtic than if it had been empty. Time himÂself had decided to stop in and say hello, that there was nothÂing parÂticÂuÂlarly imporÂtant for him to do, and that he could afford to wait around for awhile and sink into the vinyl furÂniÂture, lisÂtenÂing to the venÂtiÂlaÂtion hum while he got things ready for eterÂnity to end next ThursÂday or perÂhaps the week afterÂ that.
My feet conÂtinÂued to move. I got in my car and felt immensely grateÂful that I could simÂply drive away. I could leave this place and the bodÂies in their beds and the score on the whiteÂboard and the timeÂless terÂror of the waitÂing room. I could sleep withÂout nightÂmares and wake up withÂout fearÂing that moment when I sudÂdenly rememÂber that everyÂthing is difÂferÂent now that sheâ€™s gone, ohmyÂgod sheâ€™s really gone.
Medicine is attractive as a career option because it showcases the extremes of human circumstances and the moments in which we feel most vulnerable, enraged, thrilled, or in despair. There are plenty of exposures to life-altering and frequently traumatic events, and we imagine that such experiences naturally impart a certain authenticity and virtue of experience to those who participate. However, what has transformed me in surprising ways is an unexpected appreciation for the small and ordinary events of life, like that of a little girl enjoying breakfast with her father.
WhatÂ gain has the worker from his toil? I have seenÂ the business thatÂ God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He hasÂ made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannotÂ find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there isÂ nothing better for them than to be joyful and toÂ do good as long as they live; alsoÂ that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toilâ€”this isÂ God’s gift to man. – Ecclesiastes 3
* Not any specific cases, though sadly each is common enough.
About the author:
David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decidÂedly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disneyâ€™s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.