Before I started my journey into the world of medicine, I had altruistic ambitions of saving the lives of children. I had envisioned valiantly fought battles against disease and disability, with eventual return to health and a normal childhood. In the recesses of my mind, I knew reality dictated the eventual decline in the health of some children. But it was a vague and shadowy figure lurking just outside the boundaries of actualized truth.
It was not until I crossed the threshold into physicianhood that the rough and jagged contours of this figure of truth came sharply into focus. I would not win every battle. There would be some children who, despite great efforts and fervent prayers, would still succumb to disease and death. I had not anticipated this. And I had not anticipated the impact these children and their families would have on my life.
While I suppose influence and impact can be born of intimate conversation or grandiose actions, it has been the subtle, quiet existence and unspoken struggle of my small mentors that have touched me the deepest. I cannot tell you what his favorite color was. I don’t know what she dreamed of becoming when she was an adult. I will never know their greatest accomplishments or how they imagined they would change the world. The words we exchanged would not fill a page. And if asked, I doubt they could tell you my name. But those details do not matter. The things that speak to you the loudest do not always come from a conversation of familiarity.
What touches me instead are the manners not forgotten despite discomfort and pain. A quiet, “please don’t push too hard, it hurts when you do.” A morning routine of a high five, a fist bump, and a wink, because words refuse to escape the lips imprisoned by tumor. A small smile when I say “hello.” A child whose greatest fear is not his own fragility, but rather the fate of his family as the finality of his diagnosis is revealed. The naked, piercing words of, “I love you, but I am ready to die.” These are the things I tuck away, to be brought out and examined in the stillness of being alone.
In my reflection, I begin to wonder, what kind of a parent would I be if I knew my child would not celebrate their next birthday? Would I perseverate on unimportant details, leaving my child to fight a losing battle alone? Would I have the ability to grieve graciously, focusing on celebrating the life that remains rather than exerting my energy feigning off the inevitable? Would I make a positive impact on the lives of the medical team caring for my child? I hope I never have to find out. But it’s a humbling practice to examine my character.
I used to think that I would be the one changing lives in the doctor patient relationship. I was wrong. I am the one being changed.