the hope of healing

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.

 

soul-work

Two days ago, I packed by bags and moved to Boston, MA. The night before was full of tears, happy ones and sad ones, long hugs, prayers, and motivating words. Honestly, I was completely terrified. And I’m working through those emotions and trying to allow God to guide my life, to dictate when and where I need to go to become the person He designed. It’s hard. I’m two days in, and I’ve already had to confront topics and conversations that challenge my thinking and address new ideas that I’ve never seen before. I welcome new ideas, and always have, but I trust that my roots are planted deep in my values—believing that those things that are critical to who I am are unchanging, unwavering. Some of the most important work I’ve been doing the past 8 years or so is establishing who I am, what I believe, what is important to me. It’s truly a dynamic process to lay down our foundations, to articulate what we find meaningful and important in life, and I’ve spent many nights, days, moments, and experiences trying to define those things for me. I’ve made mistakes, jumped into situations that eventually didn’t feel right for me, tried out a habit that was popular but didn’t speak to me, and made mistakes I want to forget forever. But all that soul-work was way more important than anything that I was studying in school—that stuff lingers long after the organic chemistry mechanisms fade into the dark crevices of the mind, never to be recovered. My advice to those younger people: focus on soul-work as much as “real” work. You will be challenged, confused, and overwhelmed as you transition into adulthood (am I there yet?) and that soul-work will root you to what’s important.

I’m doing a program called “Justice, Advocacy, and Activism in Medicine” or JAAM where we’ve discussed topics like racism in medicine, reproductive rights and justice, substance use disorders, abortion, transgender/intersex identities, and many more really heavy and difficult topics to grapple with. I was/am certainly overwhelmed, but I pray every night that God reveals himself to me over the next four years in ways I never imagined or anticipated so that I can better serve those people whose care will be entrusted to me. I pray that he surrounds me with people who will lift me up and challenge me, and that my relationships at home will be fortified because of a shared understanding and belief system. I’m incredibly thankful for Avery, my boyfriend, for being so supportive through everything we go through together and being the person I can debrief with when I need to. He is a wonderful life partner. I’m thankful for my parents and sisters for keeping me stable and showing me such strong love as I left home, reminding me how blessed I am to have people who care deeply for me. I’m thankful for this journey, even though I’m scared, nervous, and uneasy, because I’m also curious, excited, and hopeful.

I think my word for this year is “change.” Change can be hard—it’s supposed to be, though, or it wouldn’t be a transformative process. So much in my life has already changed, and I feel many years older now than I was at this point last year (and I did just turn 23…). I’m ready for the change, for the challenges, for a new adventure, for a purpose that is bigger than myself, for taking care of myself, and for never giving up hope that I can make a difference in some way. I’m immersed in a city that looks and feels quite different from what I’m used to, but I welcome the ways I can interact with its people, bring my own background and belief system, and engage spiritually with this place—hearing people, listening to their stories, meeting new friends, trusting that God puts people and places in my life at critical moments of change. I believe that every serendipitous encounter, conversation, thought, phone call, message or interaction is a part of a mosaic that eventually reveals the plan that God designs for us. That plan may be fixed before we are born or may be one that changes as we move through life—either way, I’m ready. I’m here, ready to learn, grow, change, transform, love, and hope.

the free

Piece by piece

We build the wall

That works to separate us all

From those who have from those don’t

From those who can to those who won’t.

We throw our words around like flames

That scar and burn but mostly blame

Because those who won’t just steal from me

And those who don’t just need to flee.

Word by word

We all fall down

Our piercing words can only drown

Those who seek a sweeter place

To love and live and show their face.

All they find is hate and harm

From those with dangling, cross-shaped charms

“Build the wall!” they shout with glee

And as we do, we imprison the free.

Heart by heart

We deny the hate

That steals our love and determines our fate

We stand together in unity

Remembering whose pain once set us free.

We don’t speak loud but we do speak out

Because acts of love don’t scream and shout

The greatest of love has spoken for me

Now I speak for Him on that sacred tree.

I wrote this on a plane ride back from visits in Boston and Providence over the weekend. I was really inspired by the people, love, passion, and humanity that swept me up over the past few days and felt compelled to write this piece of poetry. It is political, but our lives are political. They are messy, confusing, never black and white. This poem, I hope, urges us to consider the gray– to find our place in the gray. The piece is also about love, peace, freedom, Christ, and unity. I hope the beauty of the woods isn’t missed for focusing in on the tree. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

cancer

Today at work I got emotional.

I work in a cardio-oncology lab, and I spend most of my days writing and reading about cancer therapies, cancers, and heart disease. Sometimes, I write and read so much that I dream I actually have breast cancer, and I wake up gripping for reality and feel overwhelmingly thankful that I do not. I read about it so much that sometimes I forget that actual people get cancer, not just numbers and statistics published in journals, and I’m humbly reminded of this when I see patients in the clinic who cling to an unwavering hope. I don’t typically get emotional at work, because when I’m not sitting at my computer planning things or shadowing in the clinic, I’m working with mice that I’m treating with immunotherapy. While I do get attached to my mice and I’m thankful for the role they play in scientific discovery, they don’t typically make me emotional. Sometimes, they even bite me and claw at me and elicit a response very opposite of thankful. Today, though, I had a conference call with the physician I work with and a group of our collaborators from MD Anderson Cancer Center. We all got together to talk because we are interested in understanding why and how the immune system can fight off cancer. We as a cardio-oncology group are interested in the heart, and why some patients develop fatal heart disease when they receive immune-checkpoint inhibitors (a cancer treatment). This is what all of my research projects are focused on, and I’m very passionate about this topic. I think one day I may become a cancer doctor, or a cardio-oncologist, or continue asking questions like these, but that’s too far away for me to speculate. The other group, hailing from one of the most prominent cancer centers in the world, discovered immunotherapy and specifically how the immune system can attack cancer cells in the body. While I was a bit star-struck to be talking to people who have literally saved hundreds of thousands of lives, something every doctor or scientist dreams of doing, I was even more touched by their sincerity and care for patients. I think a lot of times people think humanity is heading in the wrong direction, but moments like these tell me differently. I’m reminded that biomedical research is truly a selfless act of love for humanity. If you have cancer, or if anyone you love has cancer, please know that there are scientists, physicians, pharmacists, students, and every part of the biomedical research industry who are out there working for you. Day and night, there are people thinking of how to combat the disease that maliciously steals our children, parents, friends, and neighbors. I’ve heard people jadedly and suspiciously tell me they believe that there is a cure for cancer that the government is holding it from us. This is incredibly discouraging to me, because I see the hearts of scientists and doctors who are diligently searching for cures and treatments. I see them behind masculine, poised faces, behind white coats and dress pants, behind strong words and distant demeanors; I see people who care for humanity and spend their lives working to cure someone they will never even meet. While most days I just let these encounters go unnoticed, today I appreciated that there is something incredibly powerful and moving in that reality.

rebirth

 “Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” — Matthew 26:36-39

When I was little, Easter was when we made “Easter trees” by clamping string into plastic eggs and hanging them outside. I remember picking out the perfect Easter dress for church and waking to a basket full of chocolate goodies and a new springtime piece of clothing. I remember – with a little competitive love – the exciting egg hunts and relaxing Sunday afternoon meal at my grandparents’ house. Easter has always had a bright, enlivening aura around it – the promise of a fresh breath of air, a happy season as the dawn of spring is carried in on Easter’s arrival. Easter brings new life. As a child I never understood why, but as I get older I understand more.

The image of Jesus in Matthew 26:36-39 is not filled with sunshine, flowers, and pastel colored eggs. He isn’t rejoicing at the promise of new life for us; Jesus mourns his own death. This is one of my favorite images of Jesus, not because he is filled with sorrow and grief, but because it shows him experiencing feelings that are innately human and worldly. How many times have we, collectively as humans, felt “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”? At some point in our lives, we will feel the overwhelming, crippling grief that Jesus felt in the garden of Gethsemane. Maybe it will be the day our parents pass away, or when one of our friends gets a bad diagnosis, or when we feel immensely desolate. I’m not being cynical, but I am being realistic. We will likely experience these feelings in our lives.

This is the very reason why I love this image of Jesus. He was vulnerable, pained with the situation he was facing. How hopeless I would feel if I thought I had to go my whole life trying to live up to a Christlike figure that never felt the pain and sorrow of loss. Instead of viewing our own tragedies in conflict with the existence of a powerful, loving God, we should view them like Jesus did: painful, harrowing, but never the end of the story.

Jesus cried out to his Father to take the cup, to remove the tragic death he was about to encounter. I think we can learn so much from Jesus in this moment. First, it is okay to feel the heartbreaking reality of life’s circumstances. Jesus didn’t fake a bold, invincibility toward God. He accepted with humility his desperation and faced God with vulnerability and truth. Secondly, Jesus didn’t run from the Father. He didn’t try to evade God by turning to worldly promises. He turned toward God and prayed to Him. The realness of Jesus in this moment gives me hope that when I face hurt, tribulations, and defeat in this life, my response does not have to be trivialized; I don’t have to display false courage. While He is offering a behavioral response to difficult situations (if you can even call what Jesus was about to encounter difficult), He includes a didactic moment, too. That is, when times get tough (which they invariably will), the first place to go is to God. God will always meet us in prayer, even when we’re angry, unfaithful, and devastated.

While all of this seems sad and dark, there is indeed light that returns the vitality, beauty, and promise of new beginnings that Easter is known for. Jesus didn’t stop in this moment to lament indefinitely. He gets up and recognizes His fate – to save a world of sinners. He confidently says to his capturers in a scripture I love:

“Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” – Matthew 26:53-54

Jesus knew the implications of His crucifixion. He could have called on the Heavens and saved Himself from the pain He would encounter. But He didn’t. He embraced God’s will for His life and died to save the very man who hung him on the cross. It is a beautiful, overwhelming, incomprehensible love that he displayed for us.

Easter still has to me the excitement and fun that I remember as a child. I still love a good egg hunt and an elegant dress for church. I cherish getting together with my family and taking special time to remember why we celebrate this season of pastel-colored eggs and whimsical decorations. Now though, Easter is so much more than this. Yes, while the springtime flowers and sunny days are revitalizing, the promises that Jesus fulfilled on the cross will always be the most life-giving, hope-renewing, and beautiful treasures that I, and we, will ever receive.

sunny rays

“Let the illuminating rays of the morning sun revive my spirit, renew my soul, and fill my heart with the hope of the descending dawn.” – mb

This morning I rolled over in my two-foot-wide bed and was greeted with the sunny and peaceful dawn of the morning. It has been rainy the past few days (or weeks, it feels like) and my spirits have felt the same dreary, sobering mood that the overcast, grey skies bring. But today, I rolled over and I saw sunshine and felt a joy and hope spring up inside me. I consider myself a somewhat-paradoxically optimistic yet skeptical person about things. I was raised on seeing the best in others, being the bigger person, and always finding forgiveness because life is too short to hold grudges against others. Skepticism, though, has woven its way into my life though and not in a necessarily bad way. Healthy skepticism can prevent pride, overconfidence, and faulty judgement. I’m at a place in my life, though, where I want to reevaluate what I’m making priority and what tendencies recur in my life. Periods of fasting and prayer have urged something deep within me to reconsider what I’m considering important in this life; what idols have I unintentionally set up? How do we as a society and especially as believers deconstruct those things that have begun to take root in our hearts and outcompete our love for others, doing good, and living Christ-like? What does it mean to live authentically as a Christian and a doctor, scientist, writer, teacher, lawyer, musician, etc.? How can I change my life in such a way that it is refocused, centered, and set on sights of above?

In my shallow attempt to answer some of these questions, I’ve quickly learned it is both complex and uncomfortable to address your life in such a way, as an observer or outsider. Life itself can be hard, and it’s my superstition that too many people are afraid of hiding their fears and insecurities, their big challenging questions. How are we supposed to parse through what is important in life if we can’t even discuss it with the people who are present in our lives every day? I am just as guilty about this as the next person, but for some reason I’ve felt the need to change that and to eliminate this hindrance in my relationship with others and with God. When I started this blog, one of my intentions was sincerity about the hard things in life, like body insecurity, loneliness, divorce, failure. This was my platform of exposing the vulnerabilities and being real with others. Now, my attempts to write are often displaced by obligations to study or work. So instead my goal has been to create real, vulnerable and truthful relationships with others. When I “feel the need” to start doing something different in my life, even if it so minute and seemingly insignificant, it is usually inspired by the heavenly Creator. I don’t want to wear these masks every day in front of others, always answering with the “right” question when someone asks something meaningful about your life. One time in church, I was so caught off guard because my pastor once asked me how I was doing. Of course, as we all do, I answered, “Oh I’m doing fine, how are you?” and his response was, “No, how are you really doing, what’s going on in your life?”. He caught me at a time where I was really struggling with some things behind the scenes, and this intentional, thoughtful question provoked something in me that is usually deeply buried in daily conversations. He didn’t just care about filling the space between us with empty words and conversation, but he wanted to dig deep into what was going on in my life. This type of real, intentional conversation and community with others is something that I long for these days. I’m tired of artificial conversation, wearing masks that make our lives look flawless and unrealistically strong. This is not what I want.

Jesus never said to avoid letting others into your mind where there may be insecurities, doubts, questions. In community, we have the opportunity to break down walls. My walls are pretty rigidly constructed after years of maintenance and reinforcement. I’m the first to admit to being the type that always appears put-together with “everything figured out” but let me first handedly say that this is not the case. My doubts and fears are cumbersome and admittedly scary and unwanted. I question things. I feel out of place, uncertain, and confused sometimes. Instead of bottling these feelings up, I’ve began to embrace them and talk through them with others. I’ve began, most importantly, to talk through them with God. As I would my best friend, I welcome God’s input on my situation and seek for His answers instead of my own. I really think our best bet at answering some of the hard, anxiety-inducing, and uncomfortable questions I mentioned above is partnering with God in prayer and in life. It requires a community of believers and friends that can help you navigate through life’s toughest issues.

I think something transformational is happening in my life right now, something that is helping me to reevaluate and rethink my old tendencies and desires. It feels small and subtle but present. For some reason I felt the need to write it down, talk it out, put it out there for the world. Maybe God is calling you into something more than artificial relationships and surface-level Christianity. My hopeful, optimistic heart is overpowering the skeptical, doubtful nature of the human being. I think there is more for us than achievement, recognition, reward, promotion, and perfection. Something urges me to articulate that when we partner with God, truly anything can happen. Let the renewing rays of the sunshine remind us that there is hope on the dawn.

“This is my command — be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9

“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:14

new beginnings

The textbooks are purchased, the desk is decorated, and the coffee has already been brewed (multiple times). I can smell the start of a new year, and I can certainly feel it. Sophomore year as a pre-medical student is full of the “hard” classes and a lovely phenomenon called the “sophomore slump”. My year as a sophomore will be filled with organic chemistry I and II, genetics, microbiology, molecular biology, statistics, and some humanities classes. As I sit and prepare for the upcoming year, I naturally feel very overwhelmed (taking a look at the syllabi didn’t help either). But the truth is, I don’t want to fear what God has given me. My education, my freedom to pursue a career that I picked and no one picked for me, is a blessing. Sometimes I get so attached to the things of this life (GPA, honors, awards, leadership positions, and ultimately two letters after my name), that I get consumed with the accompanying anxiety of it all. The only way I can escape this anxiety is by remembering the true honor of this life. The reward that satisfies only the deepest desire of my soul. The heavenly eternal promise following this temporary life. And while this seems extreme, it is the only thing that keeps me at ease in the midst of chaos. This world and the society that I am a part of is increasingly negative, judgmental, and uncertain. Belmont, although one of my favorite places to be, is a place that is an extension of this world and cannot fulfill the greater call I have been given. My place in this world, molded by my decisions and mediated by the purpose God has placed on my life, is to seek and glorify the Lord’s name in all that I do.

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” -1 Corinthians 10:31

So “whatever you do” for me right now is a whole lot of studying, reading, writing, calculating, speaking, meeting, and trying for success in the career I aspire to pursue. Likewise, I will seek to glorify God in those things and by doing so that requires that the anxiety accompanying it all to cease. A difficult challenge (not just for those in college, but in any profession or situation) but I believe by chasing the things of above, God will grant strength to all those who trust in Him. I can only hope that the things I am pursuing in this temporary life satisfy and please the Creator of it all. My prayer is that this semester I see my studies as an opportunity to learn new knowledge to impact the world in the way God calls me to, whatever that may be. I pray to see challenges as a test of character and faith to encourage me to grow stronger. I pray for comprehension, retention, and recall in understanding the complex content that I will be required to learn. I pray mostly for optimism, hope, and joy in this semester. I pray that love permeates the air that I walk and that the people I encounter know that they are loved, cherished, and important to me. My prayer is that God blesses everyone’s pathway this semester and that we all possess thankfulness for the blessing of new beginnings. This is my prayer.