At first, I thought the light was reflecting off the mirror. But no. There It was – my first gray hair. I did not expect to live to see the day. I was ecstatic! At six months old, I was diagnosed with a severe illness called thalassemia major and was incorrectly expecting to have passed by now. (Google told me so!) Yet, this year, I complete ten years beyond my “sell by” date.
Winning against fate is unique – both freeing and binding. It feels as if I have won a bet against myself. And once the euphoria passes, the weight sets in. While I have delayed fate, I am trying to justify my ten years of existence. So, I ask – how did I spend my last ten years? Did I get my full value? Upon reflection, common themes arose – finding love, finding purpose and passion, bearing witness, being open to emotions, and seeing with curiosity.
Finding love. Love encompasses various relationships. I find love in my family – composed of genetic and human-created relationships. My family is like a pack of wolves, always together through the ups and downs of life. Nevertheless, finding love is a quest of sharing my own fears and hopes, braving the uncertainty of life, and reciprocating an unconditional commitment. It is not easy to find a partner who willingly travels with you on this quest. With monthly transfusions, nightly injections, and a steady barrage of diagnostics, I knew that my partner would be one of a kind, especially created for me – like a personalized blanket for comfort, love, and security. Reciprocating love has meant giving my family confidence that I will take care of myself. After all, they are entrusting their love in me, their heart in mine, and their hopes in my future.
Finding purpose and passion. While loving my family is full of meaning and purpose, I knew that I wanted more in life. I found it in primary care! Primary care aligned with my belief that everyone deserves healthcare and “soft skills” are vital to practicing medicine. Being a primary care physician is like channeling Batman – in the darkest moment, we appear silently, with a sharp mind and quick moves. And once the villain is defeated, we leave before applause but with a calling signal to remind everyone we are available, engaged, and always monitoring for signs of trouble. Being this physician has provided a way for me to cope with my own illness. On the best of days, I walk in strong to start my day. On the cloudy days, I can count on my work to give me a reprieve – to feel confident, in control, and useful.
Bearing witness. Perhaps the saddest and most experiential aspect of the past ten years. I have seen patients, family, and friends through the loss of parents, spouses, and other loved ones. Most counselors say that bearing witness to life’s uncertainty and unfairness is perhaps the heaviest experience. And it’s true; I feel as if I have lived many decades in during these times, holding feelings of helplessness close to my heart. At each wake, I find myself wishing this was not the circumstance, and being acutely aware that this day will arrive regardless. When I conversations about illness and mortality with my loved ones, we acknowledge that tomorrow is not assured for any of us. Bearing witness to their sadness in this conversation is difficult, but it is also the best that I can do to protect them when that day comes. I choose to hurt now with the hope that later the hurt will be bearable.
Being open to emotions. I laugh. I cry. I ferment. I think. Therefore, I am … a human being! I try to untangle my emotions as a patient, a physician, an immigrant, and a woman. And, “being human” part is difficult. It leaves me feeling vulnerable but also grateful to be able to feel things beyond clinical words. Experiencing mistakes, near errors, and the cruelty of a dozen intravenous attempts in a matter of a few minutes will make anyone experience an emotional range envying the colors of a rainbow. Yet, being able to accept the mental and physical manifestations of emotions has been an important lesson for me in being human. One thing I have realized: To accept emotions as they are – as rolling surf waves that will pass.
Seeing with curiosity. I have a mole on my heel, and my grandfather always said it would stir wanderlust inside me. To me, that mole is a reminder of him and not wanderlust. He saw with the curiosity of a child. I strive to see the world with that same lens of curiosity because it seems pure and beneficial for my soul. While I have practiced and improved in my ability to be mindful and curious, the ever-changing world around me beckons for even more curiosity, tolerance, and mindfulness. I wonder if this curiosity eventually leads to a garden of clarity.
It is clear that my first 25 years of education reinforced awards, GPA, titles, compensation, as symbols of success; yet, they did not quite make it to my top five list. Instead, it was the intangible experiences. My thoughts often make me wonder – should our definition of success change, especially as our profession tackles burnout? I wonder whether chasing the dream of success and value is an illusion? An illusion where we define our own journey and destination. I see us struggling to capture our contributions in terms of the length and depth of our CVs. Perhaps, our true contributions are reflected in our human growth. Perhaps, accomplishing intangible achievements is the goal. Perhaps, it is time to reflect upon what we value as humans. Maybe, we can all agree to value life, and celebrate wisely by living our life.
Cheers to another ten years (crossing my finger).
Ankita Sagar is an internal medicine physician.
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