As I reflect over the past six months on learning to become a doctor, I think of how my perspective of illness has shifted. As a healthcare worker, you see people at their most vulnerable, when they are in the greatest need. Yet throughout illness, each patient retains their identity as someone who exists outside of the hospital walls—this, to me, has become some of the most important work I do as a medical student. Looking past, reaching out, and seeing people for who they really are and what they really love. Not only seeing those attributes but also allowing people to bring their dignity, identity, and personhood into the hospital room.
I see mothers, fathers, and young people who have faced life-changing illnesses that prevent them from doing what they love in life. I see women in their 50s who have scars from breast cancer or who can’t speak in full sentences because of COPD.
I see a 70-year-old man who had an intracranial hemorrhage that damaged his sense of memory and self; I see his wife transform from a lover into a caretaker, and I hear her yearnings for a husband who once walked 30 miles with her in Europe.
I see a man, struggling with substance use, silently cry out for help behind a composed, stoic face as he searches for a solution to his suffering and pain. I hear him talk about suicide ideation in one breath and his two daughters in another.
I see a girl, near my age, who has been in the hospital for 3 months now, and I see pictures she’s painted posted up around her room with a view that spans the Charles River. It’s a beautiful view, but she wants to see anything else in the world.
I see a mother, with her two toddler sons running around the exam room listening to cartoons on iPhones, as she mourns the loss of her sister to sudden cardiac arrest. She went to sleep and never woke up.
I see a grandmother start crying as she describes the pain she feels after a fall she endured. “You can’t even understand the pain I am in!” Honestly, I can’t. I’ve probably never felt a pain like hers before—physical pain mixed with loneliness, uncertainty, and fear. She’s way stronger than I’ve ever been.
That’s where my fear comes in, the awareness of the fragility of life. I see my mother, sister, brother, boyfriend, niece and nephew, dad, grandparents, best friends, and future children in the faces of all those who suffer openly in front of me. I try to dip into their pain, to feel what they feel if only in that moment—to protect myself—but find myself overwhelmed by the emotion they bring to the conversation. I fear how a single moment can transform everything—the moment a cell becomes cancerous, or a fall becomes a brain injury, or a goodbye becomes the last one.
This confrontation with illness is new to me, and I’m still learning how I will embrace the reality that life is fragile yet somehow malleable. In the context of my own existence, it makes me realize how precious life is right now, at this moment. It encourages me to take walks, read books, call those I love, and, honestly, it sometimes makes me wonder about choosing a career that separates me from my family and hometown. There is no doubt about it: medical training is hard emotionally, socially, and physically at times. There are days of studying unimaginable hours. There are disparities and heartbreaking realities in medicine. There is powerlessness and emotional warfare.
Despite these considerations, being in medicine gives me hope. It gives me an understanding of humanity. Amidst all the suffering, pain, sadness, and illness, people are relying on their providers to give them hope. That is why the woman with breast cancer is sitting in front of me with scars that gave her cure, or the man with the intracranial bleed can walk 2 miles with his wife now instead of being confined to a chair, or that the woman with the toddlers is learning of her genetic cardiomyopathy so that she doesn’t leave her own children behind. They are given hope through the medical system, research, and intervention. More than anything, my patients teach me to have hope. They remind to align my life so that I can do those things that I would being doing if I woke up tomorrow with a life-changing illness—enjoy the sunshine, prayer and community, the arts and humanities. They also encourage me to be a part of the system that provides hope to those who feel hopeless. Yes, I see life as more fragile now than I did six months ago, but I’m also much more appreciative of what it means to be healthy and alive. I hope to continue evolving my understanding of illness, suffering, and death as I meet more people, gain more perspective, and realize the blessing of medical care.