On some of my night rotations during intern year, I found myself watching WWII documentaries and movies. The patients at the VA medical center had stuck with me with their stories and their attitudes. My experiences at the VA motivated me to learn more about my patients’ lives, who had served our country. As I watched some of these movies, I noticed parallels between my life and those of the soldiers in war. Though I had lofty and noble ideals entering medicine, I wasn’t prepared for the unfiltered intensity of the field. There can be so much chaos in the hospital, between the sick patients, the instability of their medical conditions, and the uncertainty of their prognoses. There was also much tragedy, where a combination of bad luck and fate led to certain patients dying and passing away in the hospital.
I drew several themes from these movies. First, even in the darkest circumstances, there are always moments of beauty to be found. Even amid war, the natural world remains stable. Nature has the ability to pacify even the most troubled of people. Characters would often take a break from fighting and look up, only to be overwhelmed by the beauty surrounding them. Walking to the hospital in the morning and seeing the first glimpses of dawn, I feel a remarkable sense of serenity and joy. I sometimes walked through the hallways during winter and appreciated a blue sky or the clouds above. These moments keep me grounded.
Second, there is always an opportunity to find shared humanity. In war movies, even bitter enemies who had once resolved to kill each other are able to connect with one another in tender moments. On my medical rotations with the sickest patients, I too have tried to take a moment to pause and make eye contact with my patients, holding that space for a second longer than may be necessary. As I hold my patients’ hands, I can feel not just their perfusion status and their pulse, but the shared humanity between myself and the patient.
When I lead family meetings, even in the midst of the most devastating conversations regarding a loved one’s imminent death, I have found there to be an undeniable sacredness to the atmosphere, where everyone’s humanity is heightened to the gravity of the situation, united by a brave and sincere demeanor. Oddly enough, it’s times like these where I feel energized and hopeful.
Lastly, despite the intensity and trauma of residency, it builds immense strength and character. Many of the veterans in movies and in real life, at their best, exude a sense of serenity and calm, surely with the knowledge that they have seen the worst of life but having persevered, carry themselves with a confidence that they can not only handle what was thrown their way but emerge from these experiences with greater wisdom. I, too, would not be the person and doctor I am today without the trials of residency and patient care.
Working at the hospital creates a reality that is almost unfathomable for the general public, just as war is. Nothing quite prepares you for the unadulterated human suffering, the extremes of human life and death, the unyielding demands and loss. And yet, as painful and trying as many of these experiences can be, there have been clear moments of beauty, humanity, and growth.
Dostoevsky once wrote, “The darker the sky, the brighter the stars.” Perhaps it is only against the background of a field like medicine that we can discern the hidden gems of life.
Johnathan Yao is an internal medicine resident.