A pediatrician’s survival story: Remembering the children

I have just turned on my computer. It is midnight. I should be trying to sleep right now.

My 5-year-old is sick and I am on call for the next few nights. Fortunately, my daughter should get better in a day or two. She needs Tylenol for her fever, mama’s love and time to kick this virus. But as I sat in bed holding her and waiting for her fever to break, the memories of other sick children started to come back. I completed my pediatric training over 10 years ago. I have repressed the memories of that time for so long now. Slowly, painfully they have started to come back. I lived a different life then, and it almost broke me.

I went into pediatrics because it was the only thing I was passionate about. When I entered medical school I was determined to do anything but pediatrics because I was so crazy about kids; I didn’t  think I could handle children hurting and dying every day. As I went through my rotations: emergency medicine, family medicine, obstetrics, surgery; I quickly learned that I was always drawn to the children. As it turns out I am amazingly calm under pressure, and the intensity of taking care of severely ill or injured children was something I was really good at. I ended up matching at my first choice program at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Virginia. Then my life took a detour.

My intern year I married and divorced. I married someone who was broken, but trying to put himself back together. And I was just starting to break. During that time I learned about how resilient a child can be, but I also saw the cruelty of cancer, AIDS, whooping cough, lupus, drownings, and child abuse. The lack of sleep, unrelenting hours, and the pain and death around me took huge tolls on my mind and my body. I gained weight, I felt angry, I felt sad, I felt anxious, and I stopped crying my intern year. I finally ended up on antidepressants. On my rare weekend off I drank and danced until the wee hours of the morning. The day after residency ended I hopped on a plane to California. I left my memories and my medication behind, and my new life began. I was 30-years-old.

It took a few days to start living and eating healthier. It took almost 2 years for the anxiety to dissipate. It was probably 3 years before I cried again.

My friends here don’t know the “before” me. I have never drank my sadness away here. I have never danced on a table to forget the pain. I am thankfully quite boring now. I run or hike almost every day. I am a loving mother and kind wife. I am a better daughter. I have thought for years about how much I disliked the person I became in training.

But the truth was I was a survivor. I always have been and I always will be. I believe I am strong enough to let the memories come back now. I can picture some of the kids faces now. I can hear their words. I remember hugging them. But I still can’t picture the parent’s faces. As a mother there is a limit to how much pain I can process. The pain of a parent losing a child is too personal. Maybe that memory will come back in another decade. I kind of hope it doesn’t.

When I started writing this I thought I would share some of my memories of the tragedies I experienced within the walls of that hospital. It turns out that they are still too personal for me. It is enough for me to know that I remember now. And I am better now. As for the parents of those children lost, please know that everyone who cared for your child was forever changed by the experience. We loved them too.

Pediatricians did not choose this field of medicine for money or for glory. We chose this field because we wanted to heal children. There is a part of us that breaks every time that we can not. I may not always remember, but I will ultimately never forget.

Natasha Raja is a pediatrician who blogs at ParentingMD.  She is the author of Parenting MD: Guide to Baby’s First Year

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  • http://www.ronsmithmd.com/ Ron Smith

    Hi, Natasha.

    I remember feeling similarly about Pediatrics, but that it was the only thing I liked in my junior year. But I liked it a lot. Now thirty years of practice in Pediatrics, and I like it more than ever.

    C. S. Lewis says in The Problem Of Pain that the worlds argument against God boils down to this:

    If God is good and He is all powerful, then he would wish for, and be able to make them perfectly happy. But the people aren’t happy, therefore God must lack goodness or power, or both.

    We as creatures in general, and Americans in particular, take up the goal to make this life as painless and pleasant as possible. We measure success by the lack of mental and physical struggle. Would we really be happy though even if we succeeded in creating such a simple and sterile environment

    Our Laura passed away on April 24, 2012 as a result of fetal isotretinoin embryopathy. Even using two methods of contraception, Stacy conceived her. The whole story is more than I can recount here but we published a free ebook on iTunes which will tell you the whole story. Its called Forever And A Day For Laura Michelle.

    I guess the reason I feel compelled to write is because I understand, in even more ways than you can imagine, your pain. Oh if life could be without pain. But pain plants the flag of truth behind the walls of a rebel soul, doesn’t it.

    We weren’t created for pain’s sake. Just as you love your daughter, we were created for a loving relationship with our creator. Our terrible ordeal watching Laura slowly deteriorate and develop intractable 2 and 3 hour seizures all the while us never hearing the words “I love you” have since been turned from a life shattering experience, to one that we look back on and realize that sometimes bad things happen.

    I don’t believe that God intends those bad things, but because He loved us so much and refused to make us robots, behaving as we should. He gave us the ability to choose to fail. He wants us to enter into His love because we want to, not because we have to. We want our children to behave and prosper and to love us too, but we want them to be themselves, distinct and yet whole.

    Our children will fail or succeed. They will accept or reject our love because we ‘allow’ them to.

    Our painful experience has become a flag of triumph. We made it through! We went the distance with Laura in the most difficult of circumstances. We are still together now celebrating thirty-six years married. We are still in love, and we love Laura deeply.

    Still Laura was sick, but isn’t life an ultimate ‘sickness’ that must have her same end? I think we can have peace and we can experience love much higher than a parent’s greatest love for their children.

    Now I didn’t say all this to be preachy. I want you to be encouraged especially since I remember that it was about fourteen years or so into practice when even that became a discouragement for me. I hope that won’t be so for you and others.

    Very warmest of regards,

    Ron Smith, MD
    www (adot) ronsmithmd (adot) com

  • Natasha Raja, M.D.

    Thanks @DikeDrummond:disqus . I have definitely found writing to be very therapeutic. Before starting my blog, I lost a great deal of sleep thinking about children crushed by TVs who couldn’t be saved, my unvaccinated patients, the helmetless kids cruising though my neighborhood… Now when I see it I just write about the topic or post safety information on my facebook page, turn off my computer, and lie down knowing that I am doing my best. Finding a better work-life balance has also been a blessing. It is nice to see your resource for physicians who need help.
    Natasha

  • http://www.ParentingMD.com/ Natasha Raja, M.D.

    Thank you @lotzakids:disqus . The PICU is definitely a hard place to keep your sanity! I am thankful you feel supported.
    Sincerely,
    Natasha

  • PedsDad

    Wow. This is amazing. I felt the same way about peds and reacted much the same way in med school and residency. And I feel the same way now about my practice and my life. I love being a pediatrician. I have a great son and a wonderful partner.
    I also have found that writing about some of the losses of those days is still too personal and too sad. But I’m WAY more present for patients now and more willing to reach out to them and cry with them (and for them).