The magic of medicine stems from the empathy of one heart opening itself to another

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune is the kind of book that paints you into an entirely new, fantastical world, and you may find yourself wishing you never left. Our humble protagonist, Linus Baker, is an employee of DICOMY (Department in Charge of Magical Youth) who spends his days evaluating orphanages that house, teach, and often abuse magical children in a land where extreme prejudice against those with magical capabilities runs rampant. When he finds a master of an orphanage to be unsuitable, he makes a recommendation in his extremely thorough report to have the master removed. He does not allow himself to think about the displacement of the children from their previous home to a DICOMY-run school as a result of his investigation. He is the ideal employee- detailed, motivated by his belief that all children deserve to be kept safe, but always distant from the children. He never crosses an emotional boundary to allow his heart too close to his investigation.

Until he travels to the titular home, the House in the Cerulean Sea, filled with the most dangerous of children and a master who in his own right is more than Linus knows how to handle. He meets six extraordinary children whose existence questions the limits of human empathy (e.g., how would you feel about the son of Lucifer?). As much as he tries to remain professionally distant, his previously impenetrable boundaries come shattering down like the pieces of a hundred records falling off of a small, scared child’s bedroom wall. The children and their master-turned-father make their way into his heart and help him learn that truly protecting magical children comes not from a comprehensive report, but with genuine compassion and love.

There is a beautiful scene in an ice cream shop where Linus is comforting one of the children after a townsperson makes a hateful and disparaging remark. Linus states, “It is not fair, the way some people can be … Hate is loud, but I think you’ll learn it’s because it’s only ever a few people shouting, desperate to be heard. You might never be able to change their minds, but so long as you remember you’re not alone, you will overcome.”

This interaction touched me for two reasons. In a literal sense, this quote reminded me of our current national climate. With so much discrimination and isolation, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and to feel like giving up. It is crucial to remember that hatred is loud, but love is everywhere, if only we look to find it when we need the strength to keep speaking out.

A more nuanced interpretation of Linus’ words reminded me of an experience I had at work delivering an unfavorable prognosis. I had grown close to a patient over numerous days, following them, watching their journey unfold, and trying my best to connect with them every morning. On my last day, the attending trusted me to share a negative piece of information we had just discovered about their prognosis. We all went into the room, and I sat to try to explain the best I could. I stumbled over part of my explanation as my mind struggled to find the right words while coping with my sadness. After we left, I felt deeply heartbroken about my patient and wished I could have done a better job. I wondered if I had gotten too close, allowing myself to become too invested.

The attending turned to me and said, “I am so glad that you connected with them and that you care so much. Some doctors will tell you to dissociate from your patients to handle the emotional toll, but a good doctor leaves something with every patient. It is okay to feel sad right now. Even in the worst outcomes, we can show them they are not going through this alone.”

I will never forget these words. This physician validated my efforts to emotionally connect with patients. This message will indelibly shape the way I allow myself to care for and become invested in the patients to come in my future. Illness is often incredibly unfair, and sometimes we cannot overcome. However unbeatable a disease may be, a doctor can always remind a patient they are not going through this alone. We can be the one to hold their hand every day and stand with them until the very end. The magic of medicine sometimes lies in the brilliance of a treatment or cleverness of a diagnosis, but most often, it stems from the empathy of one heart opening itself to another.

Claire Brown is a medical student. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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