Every child secretly creates a story about the adult they will eventually become. A fantasy adorned with all the trappings of honor, success, and beauty. We imagine a world in which we will make a difference; touch those we come in contact with. Especially if you aspire toward the medical profession. Our particular daydream involves rushing into a room with stethoscope bouncing back and forth around neck. With expertise we bark a series of orders, maybe grab defibrillator paddles. The patient sits up and blinks. He immediately knows his life has been saved. Family members bow. The nurses swoon at our physical prowess and the medical students at our intellectual.
And then reality hits. Medical school and residency teach that heroic moments are few and far between. We learn that medicine is never a sprint, but more accurately a laborious iron man. Tenacity of spirit, a never ending curiosity, and a deep well of humanity become the characteristics we most strive towards. Our story has changed. Our identities have pivoted to a more realistic and passionate ideal. The rewards become long lasting. Durable.
The practicing physician's story is idealized into that of Kwai Chang Caine from the TV series Kung Fu. Humble and quiet, we wander the earth alone. We come upon misery and despair. We bend with the wind but don't break. Our powers are administered gently and patiently to affect injustice when possible, and to cushion the blow when not.
This is a quiet, romanticized story. We cling to it dearly during the daily blizzard of current medical existence. It creates warmth and shields against the daily fear, anxiety, and disquietude that haunts this profession.
It's easy to forget that those we administer to also have deeply ingrained narratives. And when those narratives involve illness, disaster, and death, the physicians role as protagonist is in doubt. While I have forgotten thousands of patients who have died, their family members remember me quite clearly. I am the one who told them their loved one was dying. Or gave a horrible prognosis. Or it was my phone number that came up that day on their mobile phones. The day that disrupted their lives.
It was me. In so many stories, I was the last vision before life spiraled. My words. The way I stammered or the fidgeting that they will remember as the harbinger of catastrophe.
I can't help but think that this story is wholly suffocating.
I dreamt of being a hero.
Then I dreamt of being the gentle breeze, warm and calm.
Never, never did I dream of being someone's worst nightmare.
Master Po: [after easily defeating the boy in combat] Ha, ha, never assume because a man has no eyes he cannot see. Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Master Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Young Caine: No.
Master Po: Do you hear the grasshopper that is at your feet?
Young Caine: [looking down and seeing the insect] Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Master Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?