When my sister, Jessica, was a nurse anesthetist student at the University of New England, she had the opportunity to rotate at Johns Hopkins, and she seized it. She was young and fairly new to the medical world and so she did not recognize at first the name of the neurosurgeon with whom she would be working — Dr. Ben Carson. After receiving multiple comments from numerous people about how great it was that she would be working with him, she did what any other 20-something year old would do … she Googled him. Naturally, she found out that he was very accomplished in his field; he was the first neurosurgeon, in fact, to ever successfully separate conjoined twins that were joined at the back of the head. It did not take long, though, before it was more than his resume that made an impression on her.
It was an ordinary day, a few hours into a case, and there was not much left to do. Dr. Carson had scrubbed out and had stepped to the side of the room while the neurosurgery fellow finished closing. Apparently the inexperienced medical student that was assisting the fellow contaminated his sterile glove, and the fellow lost his temper in a fit of frustration. It was loud enough for my sister to take notice, so she stood up and peered over the blue drape that was obscuring her view of the scene. The fellow looked at Dr. Carson and said something to the effect of: “How do you do this every day? Working with medical students and residents that are inevitably going to mess up?!” And Dr. Carson, the world-famous neurosurgeon, looked at this red-faced, angry fellow and said very quietly, “Remember where you once were.”
My husband was in medical school at the time, and I remember my sister calling us to recount what an impact it had made on her. Dr. Carson’s phrase was a simple one, but it was full of kindness and understanding. He, as a powerful and respected surgeon in the wake of a tumultuous situation, had much more right to reprimand the mistake or — should he choose — to scold the student. He did neither. Instead, he chose empathy. This made a lasting impression on my sister, which has now had a lasting impression on my husband and I. It has caused a ripple effect in our lives, of which Dr. Carson, of course, has no knowledge — thus is the beauty of kindness and ripple effects.
My husband and my sister are both in the medical field now, but at one time my only connection to any physician at all was when my mom took a part-time job cleaning a doctor’s office at night. I was in high school at the time, and usually my sister, my dad, and I rotated on who went to help her and who stayed at home with my two, much younger brothers. It seems odd, almost like a dream, when I think back to those days. And yet, in another way, it seems so recent: I can tell you the exact layout of the office. I remember the plain white circular clock ticking in the waiting room and how I would glance at it, wondering how much longer before we could go home. As I emptied the trash cans and washed the lipstick off the coffee mugs. I remember looking around at the brochures, the sample cabinet, and the various posters on the wall, and trying to imagine what life might be like during office hours. I knew it must be a bustling practice all day long, but it was so quiet and eerie at night.
There were often remnants of celebrations in the break room — leftover cakes or party supplies for Nurse’s Week, birthdays, holidays, and so on. I vividly remember thinking what a surprise it would be to walk in some evening and have a celebration of our own — a gift card or a bonus or just a thank you note. I knew my mom was getting paid, but even still I thought that would be grand. It is strange, though — very strange, in fact — that I remember this, but I remember thinking that if I ever worked at or had influence in a doctor’s office that I would remember to be kind to the cleaning lady that comes at night, that I would do my best to acknowledge the person no one sees.
My amazing mom took that job for a very specific purpose. It was not to buy herself more clothes or pampering or anything for herself at all. Her sole purpose behind it was because she desperately wanted to send my sister and me to Europe when we graduated high school, and this was the only way she knew of to come up with the extra funds. Most of our friends did not know that she was cleaning the office at all, and I remember hoping no one from high school would see our car there. Looking back, I wish I had not felt anything but pride; it is now only with great admiration that I think of my mom taking that job.
First, because I now realize there is no shame in honest work ever, no matter the job description. And secondly, though I could not see it at the time, I now realize that her sole motivation was her great love for my sister and I and her desire for us to see further in life by taking such a trip; if faced with the same circumstances for the betterment of my children, I pray that I will always choose like my mother.
As I write this, I am in the beautiful city of Lyon, France, for an orthopedic surgery conference with my husband. It is only my second trip to Europe — my first time back since my visit as a starry-eyed 18-year old, a trip which was made possible by my mom and the doctor’s office. As I sit here taking in the beautiful scenery around me, I feel so strongly the remembrance of Dr. Carson’s wise words, and I can’t help but think of where I once was and feel the weight of my thankful heart.
I have another agenda too, I suppose; I am coming through on a promise I made to my high school self — that if I ever had the opportunity, I would encourage kindness to the cleaning staff — so do me a favor and pick up a nice surprise for them in hopes that, whatever their dream is, a little kindness along the way can never hurt.
Most of all, no matter our jobs or position in life, may we all feel the weight of a thankful heart and remember where we once were – or could have been — and, therefore, always focus on continuing to reach higher without ever feeling above.
Erica McCaleb Camp is the wife of an orthopedic resident who blogs at Erie Quite Contrary.