Which lessons will last a lifetime?
The room hung silent when he was done speaking. It was Monday afternoon and I had just barely woken up from sleeping off my overnight shift in the ICU. A few days prior the poet laureate of Rhode Island, Rick Benjamin, asked me to join a poetry seminar he hosts weekly at a local assisted living community. Despite the ache as I lay my head down that morning, I set my alarm knowing it would be worth it. He recited one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems in which she asks, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This profound query was then reframed as Rick asked each of us, “If you were speaking to someone younger whom you love, what would you tell them you have done to make your life wild and precious?”
I sat there in contemplation as I glanced around the room at the many storied faces around me. There were men and women in their seventh decade up to those in their late 90s. Each of these individuals had lived through World War II, Sputnik, and the Great Leap Forward. There were some who could write with ease, and others who struggled with every move of their pen, fighting tremor and memory loss. I sat there feeling apprehensive of what I, at my comparatively young age, could possibly offer to someone younger than me. This question continues to feel particularly poignant with my residency graduation right around the corner. What have all of these years meant and what have I held onto throughout? My little brother, Jake, came to mind, and the words I had been trying to find started to pour out.
Jake was seven years behind me when he was born on a calm Libra day. My sister and I showed up at the hospital wearing blue, holding blue cupcakes. Most mornings I would hear him rustling or crying through the wall we shared. I would tiptoe over creaking pine boards, quietly lift him up, and we would be together in the early light until our family woke up. Last spring I watched him walk across the college stage—oh, do the years go by. As he was making his way through college, I was finishing medical school and starting residency. What can I offer him that he doesn’t already know? He can pass his economics test with hardly a moment of study whereas I would be in the library for days. As for savoring life’s wild and precious moments, my journey through residency has shed a particular light.
Over the last three years I have been present for a raw spectrum of human experience. Yet unlike medical school, residency not only compels you to observe these, but to truly be a part of your patients’ lives and experiences, all with the backdrop of exhaustion and doubt riding along the way. It is a true roller coaster of emotions. I have held a newborn during her very first breath of life, and I have written comfort measures only orders and held my patient’s hand at the very end. These past three years I have learned how to diagnose, how to care for and treat my patients, and there continues to be more to learn. But what has it meant to bear witness to this humanity? What lessons will I take with me after I turn in my Memorial Hospital badge?