I slip through the slightly cracked door.
“Knock, knock,” I say, but mom is hidden under the blankets, resting while there are so many of us to take over for her for a tiny bit. In the darkness, I make my way to the crib, where a crack of sunlight peers through from the slightly opened blinds and shines onto the little one. She’s breathing, with some difficulty, but breathing. Oxygen is supplying her tiny lungs, sustaining her being. I find her little hand, and her small and soft fingers wrap around mine. Her long lashes caress her cheeks, fluttering in the light. I take in the quiet, listen to her breathing, listen to her fight. She doesn’t know the conversations we are all having around her tiny body, but she knows she has to fight. So I stay next to her, in the quiet before the chaos of rounds and measuring more vitals and glucose checks, and I try to absorb some of her strength too.
This was about two months ago now, the last time I had the chance to see a patient before the COVID-19 pandemic moved medical school rotations to virtual experiences. I am a third-year medical student nearing the end of my year of clinical rotations. As an aspiring pediatrician, my pediatrics clerkship was the one my heart was yearning for the most.
I stood through the long surgery hours, woke up early to pre-round, assisted in appendectomies, cholecystectomies, and kidney transplants during my surgery rotation. On my internal medicine rotation, I learned the details of chronic kidney disease and diabetic management. I took care of an elderly patient for five weeks, who by the time he was discharged, I had learned the intricacies of what he liked and didn’t like in his care. I had countless experiences that reminded me why medicine was so rewarding, why I was going through the training and the long hours.
Patient interaction during clerkships and the bonds I was hoping to form served as the light at the end of the tunnel that I was waiting for during my pre-clinical years. Most importantly, knowing I had my pediatrics experience coming up was like the dangling fruit I was working hard to catch, to taste its sweetness that I had spent so long imagining and working for.
I knew I wanted to go into pediatrics when the people I admired most in my life were the ones who spent their time away from their families caring for the children of other families, when I shadowed in OB/GYN and followed the nurse carrying the baby. I knew I envisioned myself in pediatrics when the greatest lesson I gained from both the pediatric surgery medical missions I volunteered on was the resilience that embodied the children we took care of. I knew I wanted to go into pediatrics when I valued the relationship I watched physicians build with parents almost as much as I loved their children.
So it is no surprise that when my pediatrics clerkship began, I entered it with a heart eager to learn, open to love, and willing to grow and change even more. I journaled about the encounters that struck me, took notes on the skills that providers had that I wanted to gain, asked questions in hopes that I could be better, more ready, more capable of serving these tiny humans and their families. I searched for turtles in some small ears and dinosaurs in others. I listened to the small lungs and heard them exhale resilience. I watched the worry on parents’ faces transform into courage as they armed themselves with the questions they needed to care for their babies. I gathered stories, as the poet in me always gathered stories, without knowing that my time would end sooner than I thought.
I am forever in admiration of our frontline workers who are working through these trying circumstances. In the short two weeks, I had on pediatrics, I witnessed the concern and stress grow on the faces of the residents and attendings I worked with. The PPE shortage began limiting our patient encounters. The hospital was organizing and reorganizing. There was a tangible tension in the air as we all waited for what other changes would occur. Our educators tried their best to teach us as much as they could while they had the chance to. Meanwhile, they expressed their own worry to us about their families and loved ones as the gravity of the situation worsened. Despite it all, their capes remained on; they listened to the little lungs, one small human at a time, tended to parents’ concerns, and continued to teach us the art of being pediatric care providers.
I entered medical school to learn how to be a healer for tiny humans, to be a witness to their magic, to watch them reach their potential, to learn from their fight. Who better to learn from than the tiny humans themselves? And who better to be taught by than their own care providers, who not only showed me what it meant to care for these children and their families but also exemplified what it meant to do so while worry brewed under the surface of each of their breaths for their own children and families.
As I study for my clerkships from home now, I hold onto the stories I gathered as a talisman to keep going when the status of my education feels uncertain. I cling to the moments shared with pediatricians who taught me in a short period of time that caring for others is an art as much as it is a science, and that the patients and their parents are some of our greatest teachers. I think back to those mornings with the sunlight hitting my patient’s crib, watching her exhale resilience under her blanket as I stood there in the quiet, her small but strong breaths reminding us both that we can keep going no matter the obstacles, no matter how hard the fight.
Manar Mohammad is a medical student.
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