For majority of the pandemic, I worked from home. That may sound like a dream for a pediatric resident who had a front-loaded PGY-2 schedule, but it was anything but that. My plans to go abroad (to Botswana) to engage in global health work were deferred; my projects and events and travels were cancelled. I can’t highlight how nice it was to be involved in the Human Side of Medicine project at that time. I believe strongly in the power of words and the importance of maintaining one’s own wellness in order to be an empathetic and appropriate provider.
Check out the interview here. Thanks for your support!
She was perched on one of the two chairs at the front desk of the apartment building lobby. There were a myriad of unsorted boxes stacked in front of her. It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was surprised to see her there, but it was another example (albeit a small one) that everything had changed in the space of the pandemic, everything including staff schedules. It was atypical for there to be one individual at the front desk. It was atypical for me to be home on a weekday afternoon. I craved familiarity: she wore the black hijab that was a staple and greeted me with the same upward lilt in her voice — “hey AJ.”
I was uncertain whether AJ was an intentional moniker or if she had forgotten my name. “Let me get your packages, you had a couple arrive today.” I smiled — it was forced. In the packages were masks that my parents had ordered on my behalf with the anticipation that they would be necessary. I had teased them but they were right. The other packages had the treasures of a good skincare regimen, delicious books, and clothing items for another time and place.
She was nine years young with a complicated diagnosis — neuroblastoma/pheochromocytoma. “Medically interesting” is the term I used as a euphemism for “I am terrified to be involved in her care.” After all, she was dying. I knew that. The team knew that. Her father refused that.
Still now I wonder, did she know?
A week later, I was in Iceland: far from PCAs, codes, and secret tears in the call room. I opened my laptop in the airport on my way home to update her discharge summary (after all, I was delinquent). Signed, just two days prior, was a completed death summary. I read it. I read every progress note. I looked through her vitals. I looked through her laboratory studies. Her imaging. I shut my laptop and boarded the plane.
I cried on the plane. The stranger who sat next to me asked me what was wrong and I said I was afraid of heights. She held my hand until take-off.
Later that evening, I found myself in my apartment complex elevator – it stopped on the 6th floor and I rolled my eyes. One floor away from my apartment. He, the father of the patient who occupied my thoughts on the duration of my flight, walked into the elevator.
“Hello doctor,” he said.
His eyes were bloodshot.
“Hello,” I said. I shifted my weight side to side; the space felt heavy with uncertainty and discomfort.
We reached my floor. “Goodnight” he said.
I rolled my luggage behind me. “Goodnight” I whispered as the elevator doors closed. Still now, I think about the words left unsaid. In the hospital, we used Google translate to navigate the divide between English and Arabic.
How do you say I’m so sorry for your loss in Arabic? And would that even be enough.
I am still on Cloud 9 to be a contributor to After Rounds. I’m not enthusiastic only because this is my first recurring editorial role since my undergraduate career; I am enthusiastic to be part of a space where conversations for medical providers is not just limited to how to excel in the hospital. We engage frequently in conversations about burnout and wellness – in a way that is actionable. I’ll share bi-weekly (on this space) my recent contributions to the space.