HOW I FOUND MY RHYTHM WHEN THE MUSIC STOPPED

At a time in everyone’s life, we come to find ourselves in a situation where the music stops, and we must go on.  The unfortunate truth about life is that the unexpected will happen. Some of us learn from it, some of us change because of it and some of us find our life’s calling because of it. The latter was the case for me.  After our dad picked us up from middle school, we spent that afternoon like we had every afternoon that month. We went to the oncology unit at the hospital, where my brother was admitted.

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THE MAN IN A BLUE SARONG

I remember him. I remember the man in the dark blue sarong the same way I remember the lines on back of my own hand. He was hunched over next to a column on a dirty platform at a railway station in Calcutta, India in the middle of the harsh summer sun. His hands were withered, his fingers and toes looked like tiny nubs, and he was completely malnourished and alone. He had opaque blue eyes, as if fog had taken place of his irises and pupils.

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PATIENT “OWNERSHIP”

I studied insects in college; my favorite insects were the bees (I found them diligent and so helpful to humankind).  One of my favorite classes was about medical diseases caused by insects. My professors noticed my interest in the medical side of things and connected me with a professor who did clinical research. Our work focused on a clinical trial for children with intractable epilepsy and exposed me early on to patient care and patients.

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was nevertheless frank and forthright with her empathy, neither cloying nor cold, and always genuine. And not just in this situation but also in every clinical encounter I was with her and privileged enough to observe.


My research experience wasn’t limited to my PI; I saw the clever ways my colleagues came up with in order to help families record their child’s seizure events; some gave them different colored stickers and others created personalized records with the most common seizure types the patient had. Most of these colleagues would go on to graduate school; nevertheless, I learned so much from them about how to interact with patients and how to personalize patient care. Some of my colleagues were quiet, but great listeners who interjected at just the right time during conversations with our patient families. Others were gregarious and outgoing, charming typically reserved families into opening up and sharing growth charts and seizure records with our lab.


Having the chance to take care of and follow my own set of patients made me understand the concept of patient “ownership,” a trait I believe is necessary for all employees in the medical field and difficult to instill. The responsibility of charting my patient’s seizures into a database and tracking their progress on the intervention we initiated and initiating contact each week with my families was all my own – my PI kept us on track but didn’t micro-manage us.


That’s not to say it was all positive. I saw the effects on patients and their families when there was poor communication and no empathy offered on the part of the clinician. I saw families leave the program because they felt they had no assistance from the medical staff and were overwhelmed with all we asked of them.  Families often confessed in shamefaced whispers that they hadn’t really understood what the doctor had just said after they left the room.


I took everything I saw from my years in that lab, both good experiences and bad, with me to medical school and beyond. At the time, I was debating whether or not to pursue a PhD and study insects again or to apply to medical school. After seeing the care given to our study patients by my research coworkers and my PI, I realized I wanted the opportunity to treat future patients the way I had seen it role-modeled for me. I wanted to be able to take care of and treat patients using evidence-based medicine and to be able to offer them my compassion, just as my professor and my research coworkers taught me to. Research can seem remote and detached, dry and unpalatable to many in the medical field, but it was from my time in that lab that shifted me towards pursuing my career in medicine with compassion. Even now, I reach back into the past and rely on those same lessons I learned as an undergraduate as I wend my way ever further into my medical career.      

I studied insects in college; my favorite insects were the bees (I found them diligent and so helpful to humankind).  One of my favorite classes was about medical diseases caused by insects. My professors noticed my interest in the medical side of things and connected me with a professor who did clinical research. Our work focused on a clinical trial for children with intractable epilepsy and exposed me early on to patient care and patients.


During this time, I was assigned families to follow and I would see them in clinic, getting a history and examining the patients, charting their seizures as well as their growth and anti-epileptic medication changes. I vividly remember one encounter about a year or so into my time at this clinic/lab. The therapy we used was not working for this particular child. I knew her mother fairly well at this point, having called them weekly to check on her progress, and I knew the patient well too, a chubby 5-year-old girl with a silly smile and a peaceful mien.


On this particular clinic day, the neurologist swept into the room; he was a distant man with an aloof manner and thought it better to dish out bad news briskly and move on. My interactions with him were limited to brief nods of his head and surprise when he realized I was in the room. His way of delivering unfortunate news probably worked for some patients, but it didn’t with this particular family. As he told the mother that they had maximized what could be done with conventional therapy and he had nothing more to offer her at this time, I saw her eyes become distant as she closed herself off. He rambled on for several minutes,

BY ANH-THU LE, MD

emphasizing that there was nothing else they could do for her and finally left the room, looking towards the door, possibly thinking of his next encounter. Who can say?


Once he left, her stoic façade cracked and the mother broke down, sobbing as she clutched her purse with one arm and the other stroking her daughter’s downy head.  Between choking breaths, she tearfully spoke about how much hope she had placed on the therapy. My professor, who had watched the entire exchange with wariness, approached the family carefully. I’ll never forget how she opened the discussion.


I’m sorry, that is very difficult news to receive. May I give you a hug? She asked, proffering a box of tissues. It was a simple question, but infused with care, and arms opened, the mother gave tacit permission for the embrace and cried on my PI’s shoulders. They continued a quiet conversation amidst the two of them, after my PI kindly dismissed us all from the room. There were several of us in there, two graduate students, and myself and we bolted once given permission. Outside, we commiserated about what a difficult situation it was for a family. Meanwhile, I was thinking about how well my PI had handled it all. Not clinically trained, she

ANH-THU LE, MD

Anh-Thu Le grew up in Florida and attended college and medical school at UF. She spent 2 years in the research lab and is interested in cardiothoracic surgery.