In truth, all babies in the NICU are legally “Baby Girl” or “Baby Boy” with their mother’s last name as their key identifier. But the staff does their best to refer to babies by the names that have been so carefully chosen by their parents. You can find any number of decorative nametags and pictures on display in the various cribs and isolettes around the unit, sharing what this Baby Boy or that Baby Girl should be called. When I examine my NICU patients in the morning, I say hello to them by name, because to me, it is important. A name means something. It sets you apart in a sea of faces, and firmly plants you in the soil of humanity.
It bothered me that my little patient did not have a given name, that her birth certificate would read “Baby Girl,” and that legally, until adopted, her first name would be the generic title shared by all newborn females. I started calling her Buttercup, a nickname whose origin I’m not entirely sure of, but perhaps it’s that old song, “Fill me up, Buttercup, baby don’t you let me down…” Those are the only lyrics I know, but it’s upbeat and catchy. I liked it for her, but she needed a proper name too. I Googled “girl names that mean strong” and sifted through a long list of potential monikers. I chose one, and informed her nurse that, from now on, that would be the name I would use. I did not care how other people referred to her, but to me, she would go by this name.
A few days before I left the unit, our social worker identified a potential foster family for my baby. The family came to visit Buttercup, to hold her and feed her. To talk to her and love her. They chose a new name for her, however. One entirely different than mine, but one that unofficially christened her as a member of this new family.
The identification of a potential family for Buttercup was, interestingly, both joyous and melancholic for me. While I was pleased that she would have a family to love her, her impending discharge to a new home reminded me that I would never know what ends up happening to Buttercup. I would not know if this new family adopts her, or if she will remain in the foster system. I would not know if she grows up to be tall, or what color hair she will have. Will she participate in sports? Learn to play an instrument? Become an academic? A dreamer?
While the phrase “saving lives” is often an overzealous statement applied to the job I do everyday, it would not be an overstatement in the case of Buttercup. I did help save her life. And yet, it is a life I will know nothing about, and one who will know nothing about me.
It’s an interesting paradox in medicine, and in particularly residency. We invest so intensely into the lives of our patients for days, weeks, and months, discussing treatment plans with parents, celebrating small victories, and mourning the battles lost. We know exactly how much our patients ate the day before. We know what medications they take and how often. If they had a fever, we know about it. There is virtually nothing that happens in the lives of our patients that we do not know about. For as long as they are under our care, they are an integral part of our every day. And yet, when it comes time for them to be discharged home, we say goodbye to this daily constant, knowing we will never cross paths again. We willingly relinquish the intimacy we once had with our patients, accepting that we will become a vague memory and an indistinct face from “that one time” in their lives. We do it, because it is our job, and because it means we have done our job. They no longer need us as a part of their lives.
While my active role in her life has reached its culmination, I, will remember Buttercup by name (the one I gave her), for the rest of my career. She is a reminder of the impact we can have on the lives of others, even without us knowing. After, all, she will never know how she touched me.
Since the age of 5, Katie Friederich knew she wanted to be a doctor. That interest, paired with her love for children, made pediatrics the perfect fit. More than any other field of medicine, Katie has found joy, encouragement, and true job satisfaction through the practice of pediatric medicine, and more specifically, pediatric neurology (kids brains). Children are sometimes the most effective teachers, even when their impact is unintentional! When not in the hospital, Katie enjoys traveling, reading a good book, trying new restaurants, and spending time with friends and family.