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.

 

little inconveniences

Drip drop, drip drop.

I’ve heard it a million times from a million people before.

“Oh, there it is again, the stupid sink dripping water all night long, waking me up in the middle of the night, keeping me where I can’t sleep. I’ll ask him to fix it but he’ll probably forget, or when he does fix it the next thing will pop up, probably on my way to work–it’ll be the engine, but when I get to work it’ll be my phone or when I get home from work it will be the big, loud fat drops of water dripping from the ceiling onto the kitchen table–or is it the sink again?”

Drip drop, drip drop.

Every day something new pops up–a new inconvenience to my ordinarily smooth-sailing life, a new form of drip drop, drip drop, drip drop like the incessant noise all night long from the sink, slowly letting one drop hit the bottom before the next one crashes out, staying with me all night long, echoing in the back of my mind.

I think about how that little inconvenience feels so huge–how that little inconvenience, all those little inconveniences daily, add up to a life riddled with inconveniences of the smallest scale. The person who doesn’t go immediately at a green light. The 30 seconds too long I popped the popcorn. The glass bottle I dropped and shattered and now have to clean up. I’m constantly inconvenienced.

But then, I think of what I could be hearing: that barely-there whisper of the drip drop, drip drop, drip drop, except this time it isn’t the sink slowly letting out water on to the drain, but the IV bag slowly, carefully, measurably dripping poison into my veins. It’s the IV bag keeping me alive, resisting desiccation, or tumor growth, or infection. An inconvenience so large that I must rely on it to live–suddenly, I think of all those other inconveniences–the broken phone, broken engine, broken roof, broken glass, broken house, and suddenly they all become overwhelmingly insignificant compared to the prospect of a broken body, a broken soul.

I’ll be thankful for my little inconveniences every day.

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.

values collection

Sometimes we must make big decisions in our lives.

I hate these times.

I’m horrible at making big decisions, or small decisions for that matter. I’m clearly not a very decisive person. I tend to change my mind often, and I’m easily convinced by someone who has a good argument. A part of this is because I dodge confrontation at all costs and quickly catch onto the current of the popular wave. I also think I change my mind often because life is complex, messy, and human lives are involved. This isn’t make-believe. Black and white answers are often misleading and potentially damaging. In many ways being indecisive is a conduit to being open-minded and listening to many perspectives.

I absorb new information like a sponge. Then, I add that new information to the pool of ideas that shifts and swirls within my head (it’s like a chaotic whirlpool up there). New information has huge influence over our lives. We’re all susceptible to the pull of new ideas or propaganda: politically, you may think differently today than you did five or ten years ago. You may have changed your mind about vaccinations. When you once thought they were harmless and very beneficial, now you’re skeptical because of alarmist news, trending discussion on the topic, and changing trust in authority. I’m not saying any of this is wrong, and I think it is even right to question new information. Some people spend their whole lives never questioning if what they believe is right or wrong. Those people are typically stubbornly blind in their ways and oftentimes closed-minded and hard. New information and the decision-making process can become an opportunity to explore what we believe and why.

I’m making a big decision right now, and it is hard. Every day I grow more anxious about deciding where I will go for medical school (full disclosure: it will be either Stanford or Harvard). There are a lot of factors to consider when making this decision, and, unfortunately, no one can make it for me. What I’ve learned throughout this very tough decision, though, is how to articulate what my values are. About five or six years ago, Mrs. Kelly Hinson, my high school cheerleading coach at the time, encouraged us to write down qualities we valued in a future husband. This was my first exercise is clearly stating what I find important, and I continue to reflect on my life in terms of values today.

It’s easy to get caught up in the impressing game. We all want to be impressive; it’s the driving factor for what we post on social media, how we dress, what we share with others, how we spend our money, etc. Not many people go around starting a conversation with, “Yeah, last week I failed an exam, wrecked my car, and then forgot to pay my credit card bill.” Or “I’m pretty unhappy at the moment. Yeah, I’m sad. I’m learning to cope and find outlets, but right now is honestly a hard time for me.” We just don’t shape the perception of our lives in this way. We aim to impress, subconsciously or consciously.

I’m trying to avoid the impressing game and focus on the values game. I’ve spent a lot of time narrowing in on what is important to me over the years. We spend a lot of time crafting our personal “values collection.” We avoid excess, eliminate toxicity, seek out righteousness, love what’s good, and hate what’s harmful. The actions of our lives become the patterns of our decision-making. As I make this huge, scary decision, I’m focusing on my own values: community, support, acceptance, love, flexibility, family, honesty, integrity, and compassion. Sometimes it requires taking it back old-school style and grabbing a pen and paper to simply write words that are important. If you feel caught up in the indecision of our political system or you’re being carried too much by the waves of other people, just write down what is important to you. Your own “values collection” can serve as a handy compass when navigating this complex, confusing world.

poems from seaside

I think

there are so many poems

about the ocean because it is

simultaneously violent

and peaceful.

At the same time it

crashes against the coast

destroys a weak vessel

and carries away debris

It

smoothes the rocky shore

coos the frightened bird

and hugs your planted feet.

It somehow reminds us

gently

chaotically

simply

subliminally

of that violent yet peaceful

love

that roars as it sings.

That kind of love that lives within you and within me.

——

If each day is a fresh page

Then I want mine to be

Inked with words of prayer

Stained with drops of coffee

Smudged with chocolate fingers

And scented with smells of you.

If each day is a fresh page

Then yesterday doesn’t matter

And tomorrow can’t be viewed

So I’ll sit here and

Think

Today, what good can I do?

——

prayers are like raindrops except you send them up instead of let them fall. everyday you send a raindrop up to heaven to join the puddle pooling at God’s feet. everyday you wonder, did my raindrop reach the stars or did it break along the way? then one day, you realize your raindrops were never supposed to go up all the way and stay. you just forgot to look around and see everyone soaked and smiling by the rain that wiped away their tears. your tiny little prayers were falling all the while, and finally you learn, prayers are a lot like raindrops,

they fall on those who are near.

dream big

Reader, I did it.

I got into Harvard Medical School.

This isn’t a post about the hours I poured over biochemistry pathways or the different immune cells. It isn’t about my boyfriend, Avery, who made quotes for me to read every day I studied for the MCAT. It isn’t even about my gratitude for my mom and dad who empowered this dream.

This is a post to you, to say YOU CAN DO IT. I promise you can. Whatever it is that sets your heart alive, gives you a purpose that is bigger than yourself, or wakes you up in the morning, I am begging you to chase that dream. Nothing is more beautiful than settling that thing in you that is urging you to pursue your dreams. Four years ago, I was a high school senior in a small town in rural Tennessee. I had never taken an AP class or won a national spelling bee or been inducted into the National Honors Society. I applied to one university and never even imagined applying to an Ivy League school. I had a few key mentors, a passion for science and service, and a door that was hanging wide open in front of me. Through that door, I saw limitless opportunity and chance. I saw hope. Belmont University was my vessel to explore that thing within me that said “Hey, go for it. I believe in you.” I have always felt there is something greater within me, something calling me to do more and to be more than my small and limited mind can comprehend. I followed the crazy things that thing called me towards, and I achieved a dream – a dream bigger than I ever imagined.

I think everyone has this thing within them, gnawing at their spirit. It may be starting a business, working as a nurse, doing mission work, becoming a writer or artist, helping those that are differently-abled, or finally going back to school. It may be small; it may be big. Whatever you have in you that is inching to get out, it matters. Your contribution to the world matters.

People will discourage you. People will question you. People will try to limit your ambition and your dreams. My biggest advice is to never be that person to yourself. Believe in who you are. If you do this, other people will believe in you, too. My freshman year of college, my mentor Dr. Javid Moslehi consistently introduced me as, “This is Mary. She’s going to be a Harvard medical student one day.” I jokingly laughed it off and didn’t believe him, but his belief encouraged me to believe in myself. Find those people that believe in you. They are the ones that throw gasoline on the fire within your heart.

Dream big but work hard. My dad always told me, “There are people a lot smarter than me, but none of them can work harder.” This is my motto now, too. You can be a math genius or an art prodigy, but if you do no work with that talent, you will never fulfill your potential. Seriously, work hard. Where you are deficient, hard work can compensate. I fully believe anyone can learn anything with enough time and effort. If hard work can get a girl like me into Harvard, it can get you anywhere you imagine.

Just go for it. The worst thing that can happen is that you fail, and if you fail then you just start over and try again. My mom always reminded my younger sister, “What happens when we fall? We learn to pick ourselves up.” You can always pick yourself up, and you’ll probably have people around you that are there to catch you anyways. Whatever is holding you back, throw it off. Whoever is holding you down, let them go. You are worth achieving your dreams. You are worth making a difference. I promise: you can do it.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” – Maya Angelou

sacred places

“There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” — Wendell Berry
I’m starting to understand that there truly are no unsacred places — this is a bold claim. Some may perceive the site where a white American minister burned himself alive in the name of racial reconciliation as unsacred, or the home of hundreds of incarcerated men and women as unsacred, or the doctor’s office where an abortion has been performed as unsacred, or a strip club where infidelity puts food on the table for women employees as unsacred. I am guilty, as I predict we all are, of having passed an opinion on each of these cases and many others without considering the human lives involved. And while yes, I do believe that there are very uncomfortable aspects in each of these places and scenarios, I’m starting to see that life is much more complicated than the simple dichotomy of sacred/unsacred or right/wrong or good/evil. I didn’t coin this distinction, though; that was Wendell Berry. Luckily it wasn’t me, because Berry importantly includes the alternative to unsacred: desecrated. I looked up “desecrated” in the dictionary to see exactly what he meant. Something desecrated has been violently disrespected, or possibly perverted, violated, infected, polluted, vandalized, debased, or degraded. Berry is onto something here. People — the most critiqued in society — are likely to have been victims of many waves of desecration in their lifetimes. I imagine people as those beautifully painted Russian nesting dolls. We may look whimsical and pleasing on the outside, but within each of us there are many unseen, hidden layers. These mysterious, unknown layers may be what have shifted some of us from the sacred to the desecrated. We’re all damaged, polluted, degraded in some way. Some of us are just better at hiding our layers than others.
So there are no unsacred places, only desecrated places, and those not yet desecrated, or the sacred. There are no unsacred people. There are people who have been cheated, lied to, abused, hurt, neglected, abandoned, scared, dishonored, gossiped about, rejected, and shamed; they are simply damaged. If someone we love is damaged, do we abandon them? Give up, toss them to the side, move on, and hope for better luck in the future? I hope the answer is no. At least, I’m hoping no one gives up on me. I’m damaged, just like you are. I want to see people as the complicated, multi-layered, dynamic living souls they are. This world is far too vivid and beautiful to see only in shades of black and white. That place we call harmony, sympathy, and understanding is all gray.
—–
How to Be a Poet by Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)
i   
Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   
ii   
Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   
iii   
Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

self-talk

I recently heard a story from a beautiful, African American woman who wore a stylish black cardigan and dark red lipstick. Her dark, silky hair was perfectly curled, and her smile illuminated our faces like a flashlight exposing the darkness. As she began to speak, her deep, rhythmic voice reverberated off our concrete classroom walls; her voice and its warmness filled the room like blowing breath into a balloon. I was touched by her presence even though we were separated a considerable distance. She held a sweet sense of humility, a knowingness and experience, in her voice. She told us a story.

This kind and gentle woman had been incarcerated for 14 years. Her story starts as a child, when she experienced domestic sexual trauma that continued into her teenage and adult life. She got wrapped up in some bad relationships which propelled themselves into criminal activity. Her story is not unlike many others; when trauma starts this early on, it isn’t a choice. It is a lifestyle given without any permission or consent. Among her triumphant stories was a small detail about how she began to tell herself lies and believe them. Her identity was built on false narratives, destructive words that shaped her, and a lifetime of untruths. She said eventually, she didn’t even know her real birthday.

Although I am very different from this woman, I share many of her same vulnerabilities. We all do. We are all capable of telling ourselves lies that become truth and this truth becomes our reality and this reality becomes our life. We can tell ourselves that we are worthless, purposeless, hopeless, that we have no friends, no choice in our life trajectory, and no control, or that we’re unattractive, disliked, stupid, or meaningless. We can say these things, and they will become true. I spent a lot of time in high school convincing myself that I needed to change; that I needed blonde hair and tan skin before I could be loved. Or that I needed bigger muscles and a smaller waist before I could be attractive. Or that if I spoke and acted a certain way, I would fit in. I began to believe myself. These lies became my reality and that reality became very grim and oppressing as I tried to fit into all the images that society tells us are important. My saving grace came when I began to tell myself something else: I am smart, I have importance that goes beyond physical appearances. I am loved exactly how I am. Then I began to tell myself something even more radical: Maybe I could even change the world. These things I told myself changed my life perspective. Our self-talk matters.

You may truly think you are worthless or unloved or a failure. I am not condemning your feelings or telling you that you are wrong. The thoughts you have about yourself are valid. That is really how you feel and that must be recognized. What I am saying, however, is that you should start telling yourself a new narrative. Every day wake up and tell yourself the truth that you want your reality to become. Roll out of bed and tell yourself, “I am loved. I am important. My work is meaningful. My life is valuable. I am kind, lovable, and gentle. I am free from addiction. I am free from sadness/anxiety/depression. I am in control. I am loved by something much larger than me. I was created with purpose. I was created with passion. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Or maybe just tell yourself one of those things or maybe all of them if you need it. Some days I do.

This week my mantra has been “I am strong, I am capable, I am confident” because each of those words touches on an insecurity I’ve felt this week. On Monday, I told myself this phrase as I walked to class, practiced a speech, worked my job, went about life. On Friday, my mantra became my reality: I endured the week with strength, competence, and self-assurance. My positive self-talk came true.

As you read this I ask you a simple question: What do you need to hear?

And I implore you to take on a simple task: start telling yourself that. Today, right now, this week. It may save your life.

breaking down

As I’m enjoying my morning coffee, with sunshine flooding into my small but comfy shoe-box of a bedroom, I google “how to show Christ’s love as a doctor”. It may be obvious how doctors have a platform for showing compassion, love, equality, and integrity towards their patients, but I’m a practical kind of gal so I wanted some real-life tips. One thing that stood out to me in an article that I read is the call to honor God with our lives – a seemingly simple task – but to avoid making medicine/success/accomplishment/money/etc. an idol before God. I started reflecting on my own life and realized how important and hard this is.

Avoiding idols is a slippery, hard-to-detect fine-line that I’ve even experienced as someone who is not a doctor yet. I find a sense of belonging and contentment in feeling like I’m making a difference, even if small, in someone’s life at this stage in my journey. I take pride in my accomplishments that I work so hard for, and I celebrate the opportunities that come to me throughout this journey. When I studied for the MCAT, I felt like that exam was truly determining my future, and I had to step back (or have others around me) to remind myself that God is in control of my destiny. There have been times where this career has become an idol in my life that I worshiped and thought about constantly, and it takes daily, continual action to break down that idol. My support system at my church reminds of the temporary nature of this life and how everything we do should be good but is truly only transient. When we break down those idols, liberation from anxiety, worry, and defeat ensues.

Idols don’t always look like golden calves. Sometimes they look like the pursuit of money so you can live a little more comfortably, a cute boy who you devote all your time to, the success and accomplishment of your children, perfection towards a hobby or skill, or the more deleterious but real-life idols like addiction, mental and physical illnesses, and sexual immorality. The hardest thing about breaking down idols is remembering to wake up every single day and chip away at that thing you think gives you worth in life. Whether or not we like it at all, those things will fail us and we will leave them behind us when we enter the kingdom of Heaven. I try to remember that although I want to be a physician more than anything, my life is worth so much more than that. My God has given me, and all of us, specific ways and tools to impact and gather his Kingdom. That may not be as immediately flattering or boast-worthy, but it is way more important. Every day, in a small but consistent way, start chipping away at the idol you’ve built in your life. You probably already know what it is. The effects are liberating in so, so many ways.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” – Exodus 20:3