When I was in college and decided I wanted to go to medical school, I kept a picture of a medical transport helicopter on my desk. It represented the excitement I wanted to experience one day. When I was in medical school, I loved nothing better than watching in the chaos of the trauma bay, helping as the blood spurted to the ceiling from a gunshot wound, assisting the insertion of IVs and chest tubes.
Later, in my emergency medicine residency, it was more of the same. I rode in that helicopter! I helped pick up the bleeding from the highway, where metal wrecks yielded wrecked bodies. I saw the charred skin, the holes in hearts, the dying strokes, the cardiac arrests. They were mine to care for, under the guidance of my teachers.
By then, I was beginning to grasp what was transpiring before me, as my doctor fantasies played out in the lives of real humans. I’ll never forget the sound of a mother screaming when she learned her teenage son had died of injuries sustained in a truck crash. It echoed out of the ICU room where he lay lifeless, still connected to tubes and lines. It vibrated down the hall and out into the waiting room. I couldn’t get away fast enough in my pointless, helpless white coat and scrubs.
I continued to love a good stabbing, a good poisoning, a good cardiac arrest (as if the word “good” had anything do with it in the lexicon of regular, suffering humans). It was, and remains, my job to intervene when the worst things happen to the human body. Falls, crashes, fights, toxins, drownings, magnets stuck on the penis (well, he was pretty worried about it).
However, around 1994, a year after I started my first job as a practicing physician, something happened that changed me. My wife gave me our first child, a son. And over the next few years, she gave me three more children: two more boys and a girl. And since then, suffering has taken on a totally different meaning for me. From then on I saw someone’s child, someone’s spouse in every injury and every death.
I sat alone, one night, rocking my first-born when his mother was out of town. I wondered what would happen if I lost her. Other days, at work, I naturally listened to the EMS radio. When an ambulance was dispatched to bad car crashes, I called and called until I heard her soothing voice. “We’re fine; it’s all right.” And she did the same to me when I traveled, or came to and from work. My carefree bride having contracted the same anxiety as my own from living too long with a worrisome doctor: worry, a communicable disease in a dangerous world.
I’m 50 now. I have seen enough of suffering and loss. I’m not quitting, but if I never pronounced anyone dead again, it would be fine. If I never found another brain tumor, or told someone their loved one had passed from this life, I would be ecstatic.
And yet, even if I turned in my stethoscope and sat at home, these emotions would be impossible to avoid. My heart has been broken open, as have the hearts of so many who live and work with suffering. Furthermore, the 24-hour news cycle sometimes seems to be an endless reminder of loss and pain.
These stories speak to me, whether they report great tragedies around the world, like deaths from war or Ebola, or small, simple, profound tragedies like an infant drowned or a mother murdered. And these stories never end.
The reports on the television are perhaps more real to me because I have given the bad news; I have walked into the rooms where families, with racing hearts, know that there’s only one thing I have come to say. I have seen them gather the belongings of the dead and go home with an open wound in their souls.
And having stood eye to eye with the survivors, having heard their sobs, having watched them faint, I can only extrapolate to inner city America, West Africa, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq; any place where suffering seems incomprehensible due to scale.
But despite the scale of war or epidemic, or any loss that we read about over dinner in our safe homes, these events so distant from our own lives yield mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, wives and husbands who continue to weep and strain beneath the crushing loss of those who meant nothing less than the world.
Wars and diseases, intrigues and coups and all the rest are indeed interesting things. But more important, and more terrible, is the fact that grieving humanity suffers at the center of it all. Maybe that knowledge can make us love everyone better. Because friend or foe, across the street or half a world away, everyone cries when they bury their dead. And everyone hurts as they gather up final belongings as tokens of loss.
Even our enemies.
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