Three months into my intern year, I was asked, “Tell us your name, where you went to medical school, and one thing you have learned about yourself during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
For an icebreaker, the question caught me off guard.
Moments later, the answer emerged almost as if I had summoned it myself – unassuming and unapologetic.
“I learned where the light is.”
This answer was also far more poetic and esoteric than the “I learned how to bake banana bread” or the “I learned how much I like yoga” the facilitator of this teaching session was obviously looking for. I constructed a more appropriate answer about my renewed love of jigsaw puzzles, but the real answer lingered with me.
I learned where the light is.
At the start of 2020, I wrote a poem to myself, which included the line “the light only exists because you wrote it yourself.”
I did not know the significance of those words when I wrote them, but I have relied on them immeasurably over the past six months.
The months leading to the start of my pediatrics residency left me feeling broken and afraid. I watched helplessly as COVID-19 ravaged my home state. As the end of my medical school trajectory was completely obliterated. I sheltered with my family, unable to process my fractured relationships, canceled celebrations, and overwhelming isolation. And finally, three weeks before I started residency, I found myself in a life-threatening car accident, upside down in a shattered vehicle, crawling out of the window onto the cold asphalt, feeling defeated and completely alone.
The darkness was consuming and unrelenting.
When I arrived at the hospital for my first day of work as a new doctor, I was terrified. Partly I was afraid because I was a brand new intern in a brand new hospital and desperately wanted to do the right thing for my patients, but on a deeper level, I was afraid that my new job was going to consist of more darkness.
What I found instead is that even in the face of unparalleled adversity and tragedy, pediatrics remains the ardent light that drew me to the field in the first place. As the frontline clinician for my patients, I have had the privilege of caring for them more directly than I was able to as a medical student, spending crucial moments smiling, crying, and comforting at the bedside. I have learned that this is where the light is.
The light was present when the mother of the first patient I took care of as an intern told me, “It doesn’t matter to me who else takes care of him – you will always be his doctor.” I felt it again when I played Mario Kart at 2 a.m. with my 16-year-old patient awaiting placement in the foster system, as he turned to me and said “when you’re in a place like this, you have to make the most of these moments.” I felt it again when my 17-year-old patient and I broke down in tears as I told her she could leave the hospital and see her grandmother before she passed away. I felt it again when the mother of the first patient I took care of in clinic handed me her 2-month-old baby and exclaimed, “Look Dr. Chatty, look how much he’s grown! We’re so happy to see you.”
Pediatrics has always been this light. Yet, perhaps it is the experience of being confronted with such profound darkness that has allowed me to feel this light more deeply and more completely. It has become clear to me how much of my medical training I have spent focusing on darkness – the inadequacy I feel as a medical professional, the tragic stories I see in the hospital, the flaws I observe in the medical training process. The immense loss and grief I have borne witness to in the past six months have somewhat paradoxically provided me with renewed gratitude and love for my profession. I have learned that while light does not negate darkness or render it less significant, it gives us meaning even in the most challenging of circumstances. These vital moments I have spent with patients, families, and those that take care of them have shown me the power to be found in the core of the medical profession – in the words of my mentor, simply the commitment of one group of human beings to take care of another.
I am acutely aware of how much more I have to learn as I move through my medical training. However, I am most grateful that I have already learned not only where the light is, but also that the light we create ourselves is the brightest.
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