Perpetually sleep deprived. Living on microwave dinners. Dreaming of cell cycles and muscle innervations. This is the life of a medical student. As I sit down at my desk, about to open up the dreaded biochemistry book for a long night of studying, I notice a picture I have tacked to my corkboard. Two eyes, squeezed shut, a mouth open in a scream of pain, the rest of the body a blur of charred skin, deformed tissue, blood and gauze. The image should be shocking to me, but in a strange way it just makes me stare, with a half smile on my face as I remember her.
I had been living in rural Bangladesh, volunteering as a surgical assistant at a mission hospital. After graduating from college, I was invited to work in Bangladesh with a family friend, a lifelong missionary who was the sole general surgeon there.
As I walked into the hospital and headed for the operating room one morning, I was aware of an eerie silence and somberness on the ward, normally alive and cheerfully chaotic. Suddenly, a piercing scream rang through the air, echoing off of the bare concrete walls. I peeked around the corner and saw her.
Mohida was a young woman, about my age, who had defied her husband. As a punishment, the husband doused her with kerosene and lit her on fire. Her sari melted to her skin, causing third degree burns all over her body. The flames somehow spared her face, a tiny oval of beauty amidst a sea of horror. The smell of her burnt flesh and hair infiltrated the entire ward, but it was nothing compared to the sobs of her pain. The hospital had no access to narcotics, so her pain control consisted of ibuprofen. There was nothing to do but try and make her as comfortable as possible- an impossible feat for someone as injured as she was.
I spent a lot of time those first few days just sitting on the wooden bench next to her bed. I couldn’t hold her hand, I couldn’t offer her counseling and words of wisdom, I couldn’t promise her that she would get better. All that I could do was sit there, let her know that I cared about her. As I sat there with her, chatting in my broken Bangla, I realized, “This is why we do it.”
Mohida held on for another week. The burns were too much for her, however, and two weeks after she came to the hospital, Mohida died from the brutal trauma to her body, mind, and spirit.
I am now in my third year of medical school. Memories of this extraordinary patient are a part of what motivates me through school. However, as much as I would love to be the surgeon who saves lives, it is just as rewarding to me to know that when all else fails, by sitting with a patient as she dies, I am letting her know what is at the heart of humanistic medicine: she matters to me.