Little eyes stared at me. The man to my left was holding a bundle that was his 5 month old daughter, who he carried by foot for twelve hours through the hills of Honduras, because she had been lethargic and weak. He had heard rumors of American doctors who were coming to a remote village to perform miracles for one day only. We bounced down the dirt road in a 4X4, taking his child to the nearest hospital because we feared she had meningitis.
We dropped the baby off with medications to treat her and my job was done. Although I felt good because I had helped to organize the medical mission, I wondered if our actions had made any difference. Tomorrow we would move on to another village, and days later I would leave the country entirely. I was about to start my third year of medical school and I would finally be part of the team that accepted this child and took her to health. I went to bed that night with romantic ideas of what awaited me when I returned to school.
Twelve months later I was in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. My patient, Olivia, had a severe congenital heart defect. She was being evaluated for the completion of her corrective surgeries. The night before her parents had been told that she would be discharged to a rehab hospital, in order to gather strength in preparation for her final surgery. When I examined her, her left side was immobile. She had suffered a stroke.
I came to medical school to cure people, to fix relationships, and to invest myself in my patients. I wanted to take the tools that were given to me and go bravely into the world as a healer. I wanted to pump my sweat and blood into fixing problems and resolving crisis. I struggled to understand how my experiences fit into this dream.
After two weeks, my attempts to mend Olivia had failed. I had shared her parents’ hope that her stroke was a setback she could overcome. Now they sat in the same room, staring at the same medical student who tried relentlessly to make sense of their daughter’s ailments. Olivia was a patient who would not be mechanically cured, as I had once imagined all patients could be. She could not withstand her final surgery. Not even the most advanced technology or her parents’ will could free her from the hand she had been dealt.
Even though Olivia had been the focus of my attention, I felt I would never win her over. I always left the room with her upset and looking to her parents for comfort. That last day, I pulled a bottle of “magic bubbles” out of my pocket and she suspiciously directed her eyes away from me. As the bubbles filled the room, I heard a muffled giggle escape. She stared at me and laughed while trying to touch the translucent orbs with her working hand. Though I failed to fix her ailing heart, her laughter was enough of a reward to make the effort worthwhile.
My strength as a healer was determined when I sat with Olivia and her parents and told them I did not have a cure, but that I would be with them regardless of the outcome. It was then that I fully understood that being accountable to my patients was my true responsibility as a doctor.
I discovered I wanted to care for children, because healing children required focus on the enjoyment of life, as well as to the treatment of disease. I realized it is a privilege to be with these families in their utmost time of fear and doubt.
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