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.



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.



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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Finally, almost two months after I kissed him goodbye on the way to the hospital, he started to regain consciousness. The relief was indescribable. He was awake. He was talking. Suddenly, the last few months of worry and hopelessness were like a bad dream. He would be home soon. He would laugh, and watch my soccer games, and cook his inventive dinners, and everything would return to normal. It seemed that, at last, we had reached that finish line.

How could I have known the extensive rehab that he would have to go through? How would any sixteen year-old girl have known what it was like to have to watch her father cry because he could no longer taste his food? How could I have known how to handle his embarrassed anger after he ruined his shorts because he could no longer control his bowels? They never mentioned this particular aspect of modern medicine on television shows. Not sexy enough, I guess. Viewers would not tune in to see an accurate depiction of the true cost of illness and surgery.

The experience was eye opening, but rather than repelling me from a career in medicine, it made me more certain than ever that I would become a doctor. There is no magic bullet in modern medicine. Every case requires the close supervision of medical professionals, and sometimes things go wrong for no discernable reason. My father is proof enough of that. But the very fact that each case is an uphill battle with no guaranteed success underscores the need for committed, innovative caregivers to heal patients.

I started my third year of medical school this July, and I was placed on the transplant service for my first three weeks. Given my past experience with surgery outcomes, I had been dreading my surgery clerkship, and had even scheduled it first in the year in an attempt to get it over with quickly, so I could enjoy the rest of the year. No one was more surprised than I was when I finished my clerkship having truly enjoyed surgery. I had found the procedural aspect of it interesting and challenging, but more than that, I had enjoyed having the opportunity to spend time with the patients on the wards. Changing the dressing of a patient’s wound vac became my personal task every other day. And it was so satisfying to get to know her and her husband as I did my work. I would mop up the brown-yellow liquid oozing from her abdomen, and think about all the medical professionals who might have helped my father in such a way, years ago. I hoped that they asked him about his family, and watched videos on his phone. I hoped they had stopped in at other times in the day, to see how he was doing and if he needed anything. And so I made sure to do those things, striving to be the kind of caregiver that I hope treated my father.

Sometimes, my father’s surgery and its aftermath seem like a bad dream. He was able to resume his former life almost seamlessly. It is tempting to forget the whole experience, and imagine that it never happened. However, now that I have started my clinical clerkships I think about it often, and use it as motivation to give my patients and their families the kind of attention and support that mine received almost ten years ago.   

When my dad went in for heart surgery, I never expected that he wouldn’t wake up.  Not to say that I was worry-free, just that I worried about different things. I worried about his aneurysm bursting in the handful of days between our learning of its existence and the surgery scheduled to correct it. I worried about complications during surgery. Embarrassingly, I even worried about the size and shape of the scar that would remain on his chest. (I wanted him to ask if it could be copied after Orlando Bloom’s scar in the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie. As if he could walk into the hospital like it was a hair salon, with a clipping from a magazine of the way he wanted to look after his appointment. Looking back, my naiveté is difficult for even me to comprehend.)

However, it never crossed my mind to worry about his reaction to the anesthesia.

When I kissed him goodbye that August morning as he left for the hospital, I felt relieved. The date of the surgery had felt like a finish line; the aneurysm just needed to stay intact up until the surgery, and then his surgeon would repair it, and the ticking time bomb in his chest would be neutralized.

As I remember it now, the morning of the surgery seems more like a starting line, the last moment of normalcy before a harrowing months-long ordeal that changed how I thought about medicine.  


By the time we found out about my father’s aneurysm, I had already decided, with certainty, that I would become a doctor. I liked science, and I wanted to help people, so it seemed like a logical choice. I had an unfailing conviction in the power of modern medicine to cure, most likely because I had watched a few too many episodes of House over summer vacation. To me, the hard part of medicine was figuring out what was wrong with a person, and surgery was a quick fix that saved the patient.  Once the doctors got the diagnosis right, the patient was as good as cured.

My memories of the beginning of my junior year of high school are scattered. There was a growing familiarity with the ICU’s prayer room, which my extended family had converted into their own personal waiting area, smiling hollowly for my mother’s camera on the first day of school, and my vision blurring with tears as I watched my father’s chest rise and fall with perfect unison with the click and swoosh of the machine that was keeping him alive. These memories also included looking out onto the crowd at my soccer games, and then remembering that dad would not be there and my friend taking a detour as she drove me home, allowing me time to get my wracking sobs under control before she dropped me off at my house.   


Elizabeth Harvey is a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and graduated from Harvard College with a BA in Human Evolutionary Biology with a minor in Classical Studies.  She is currently a third year medical student at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, and is interested in pursuing a residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology.