When practicing medicine, hold on to what makes you whole

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Blackness covers the paper in its entirety. Hunched over, charcoal stained fingertips splayed out in front of me, I exhale and my saturated breath evokes miniature tornadoes. The fragrance of warm charcoal engulfs my olfactory bulb and my temporal lobe explodes with images of the past. I am transported back to scraped shins guarded by starched, white ruffled socks. My fingertips awaken with the memory of smeared purple chalk on warm summer cement and the velvety caress of red and yellow tulips. I am home again, where the earthy scent of newly piled mulch mingles with the syrupy sweetness of golden honey suckles. Once more I am utterly consumed with the wonder of this world.

Reality snaps me back to the present where I collide with the onslaught of images I wish I could forget. The gray, lifeless, meconium stained baby, his limp body lifted from his mother’s gaping abdomen; the fragile toddler with osteogenesis imperfecta, gasping for breath through delicate, broken ribs. The tearstained eyes of weary parents begging for hope I know I cannot give. I wince.

“Follow the light,” I chastise my anxious mind, placing the rubbery eraser over the obscured canvas. To create what I see, I must forget what I know. So I consciously clear my thoughts and begin reducing images to their most basic components. An intricate earlobe becomes a series of distinct but connected shapes: a small triangle here, a delicate arc there, each shape bleeding seamlessly into the next. My eyes flow unencumbered over the lines of my subject and I instinctively alternate light touch with heavy-handed pressure.

In time, I become lost in a feverish motion. The charcoal becomes an extension of who I am, as the line separating my fingertips from the tool become blurred. All of my energy — my anger, sorrow, hope, and love — flow out from my core and back into this world. I allow myself to be swallowed by the emptiness and in doing so, find myself again. Little by little, out of the darkness comes light, and when it is finished, I feel whole again.

Hold on to whatever makes you whole. In medicine, those things that make you human become your salvation.

While art and medicine have always been intricately intertwined for me, for almost a decade I didn’t paint or draw a single portrait. I had been told over and over again that I didn’t have time for hobbies and distractions. So I swapped painting class for organic chemistry and English literature for basic science research.

However, during my third year of medical school, the weight of board exams, long rotations and witnessing death firsthand became too much to bear, so despite a seemingly endless to-do list and limited funds, I went to an art supply store and purchased a set of charcoal and some canvas. The next day, I sat down and wrote the first article I would submit for publication.

I quickly discovered that this creative side of myself I had spent years stifling would open a myriad of opportunities for me. Physicians have always been instructed to control their emotions and maintain composure, but I’ve learned that refusing to acknowledge pain doesn’t negate its existence. Writing and drawing allow me to let the grief in, cradle it, own it, and then with a single breath, literally blow it all away.

If you’ve been told that you don’t think the way other physicians do, good for you. Patients don’t come in multiple-choice format and often there’s not one right answer. Having a unique perspective allows you to see things differently than others and will help you discover novel techniques. So breathe it all in. Acknowledge all the heartache, outrage, magic and infinite beauty that’s inherent in practicing medicine. Then, let it all go again.

Sarah Mongiello Bernstein is a pediatrics resident.  This article originally appeared in Aspiring Docs Diaries.

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