I recently returned to the hospital where I had first worked as an attending. Everything felt different. It seemed darker and smaller, reminiscent of the feeling when you revisit your elementary school, and the water fountains appear almost touching the ground, making you feel like a giant.
I walked through the same door I had used countless times over ten years, yet it now seemed more like a portal. The floor, the windows—all the same, but everything had changed. As I passed the staff elevators, memories of my friend Bryan, another doctor, flooded my mind. I had seen him for the last time alive. His absence made the hospital feel even darker.
Arriving at the parking office, I turned the handle and stood exactly where I had stood ten years ago. I was handed stickers for my car. Back then, receiving those stickers as an attending filled me with excitement. It was like reaching the top of a mountain, feeling both nervous and thrilled, proud of graduating and being a real grown-up.
During my first year as an attending, I was pregnant with my daughter. I remember worrying about my boss’s reaction. She believed maternity leave was a vacation and wanted me to take only two weeks off. However, after my partner informed her that it was illegal to deny 12 weeks of leave, I took eight weeks, but still faced anger and disapproval. When I wanted to breastfeed, my boss pulled me aside, advising me against it and accusing me of essentially stealing from the company if I pumped during the day. In that moment, I knew I had to leave. I couldn’t fit in with a woman who couldn’t support other women. When she found out I was looking for other jobs, she threatened to fire my medical assistant if I left. She blamed me for potential financial consequences the clinic might face due to my departure. In those moments, the naive, happy-go-lucky girl in me died.
When I changed jobs, imposter syndrome took over. I worried about being successful, balancing being a mom and a full-time doctor. For about five years, I felt disconnected from everything around me.
I worked tirelessly, sacrificing my own health and fitness, trying to provide for my family and create a tangible place where I belonged. However, the health care system wore me down. Laughter turned into tears, and I lost colleagues to suicide. The toll of being on call, the pandemic, lies, harassment, and abuse all took their toll on me. Each day, I changed a little, trusting less and worrying more.
A partner fat-shamed me, another doctor treated me like garbage, and the system used me up, lied about me, and eventually discarded me.
Then, after a decade at the hospital, it all came to a stop. The music stopped playing.
I had once thought my hospital was a glorious beacon of health care where we could accomplish anything. I believed patients came first and that doctors and systems genuinely cared for the people they served.
But standing in the hospital hallway, I caught a glimpse of my face reflected in the elevator’s metal. I noticed a few more wrinkles, and my hair wasn’t as good, but I was alive. I realized the hospital hadn’t changed; rather, I had changed. The naive girl I used to be had transformed into a realist. I now understand that some people can crush others without a second thought and that not all doctors are good people. I learned the importance of finding confidence within myself because external sources will fade.
I wonder if I’m anything like the girl I once was. Would I recognize myself? Would she be saddened by the state of my career and health care? Would she be shocked? Would she still make the same choices?
She was pretty amazing, and I wish she had survived the storm. As I move forward, I’ll carry a piece of her with me into the next adventure. She deserves to witness the ending. For now, this new version of me is learning to embrace being uncomfortable.