Orange for Good Luck

Seven years ago, my poem about an orange dress won Honorable Mention in the annual William Carlos Williams Poetry Contest for medical students organized by the Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy. (It also closes out my poetry chapbook, Tools for Survival.) I distinctly remember writing it; it was one of those poems that just flowed out of me, already formed. I was studying for Step One of the US Medical Licensing Exam, and trying to make the best of that pressured month by bringing my books out on the patio to sit in the sun. Wearing a flowing orange sundress seemed like it would help, too.

I’m wearing it again as we’re about to board a plane, our first time flying with both boys, now ages 3 and 1. I still love it and its breezy comfort and cheerfulness seem like good ingredients to mix into this adventure. Here’s hoping it carries some good karma for a smooth (and well-behaved!) flight.

 

Ode to an Orange Dress

See how it flows

part goddess, part boho

chic

See what it makes me do – impromptu trip

out West,

spill my heart

to a stranger on

the subway

after she said

she liked the color

Skirt dances around

my legs even when

the wind dies

I’d take it to heaven

if I could

but no, better leave it

help someone else

do some living

 

 

Year One

It was not long into my first year of medical school that I realized that I needed to write. I needed a way to process all that I was learning and feeling, something to enjoy and something to anchor myself. By the time I graduated, I had composed a collection of essays related – some loosely, some with complete fidelity – to my experiences. Several have been published in their original forms and a few have evolved over multiple iterations before finding homes. I’m so pleased that the very first piece in the collection – titled Year One because I simply could not find another set of words to capture the thrill, the shock, the overpowering wave of responsibility, humility, and fear that arise and collide in that first stage of training – appears today on in-House, the online magazine for medical residents and fellows. Some elements of it come from true events, but overall it is a work of fiction. Click here to read: http://in-housestaff.org/year-one-688

The First Week

When I was interviewing for medical school, many of the interviewers focused on either past accomplishments (What research had I done?  What activities had been important to me during college?) or on projections into the distant future (What specialties interested me?  What type of career did I envision for myself?).  One man took a different tactic, however, and asked me to describe how I envisioned my first week of medical school.

Without pause I launched into a description of my ideal first week: I would move into my new apartment and get everything put away, determine which bank and supermarket I would frequent, join a gym, purchase my textbooks, and do some light pre-reading of the course material.  In short, I planned to have every aspect of my non-medical life settled by the time classes began.  I grew excited just thinking about all of the wonderful organizing tasks I would accomplish and about that refreshing feeling of having all of the details from one project finished and tucked away before diving into something new.

The interviewer laughed.  It was more of a guffaw than a polite chuckle.

“Just so you know,” he said, “that’s not going to happen.”

I kept my indignance to myself, forced-smiling my way through the remainder of the interview while imagining the smug satisfaction I would feel when my first week unfolded exactly as I had planned.

Irritatingly, his prediction was completely right.

Instead of returning from vacation tanned and well-rested, in perfect shape to move into our new apartment, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I arrived back from Mexico with stomach cramps and diarrhea.  He started his new job while I alternated unpacking boxes and curling up on the bathroom floor.  He then quit said job two days later because of the amazingly terrible working conditions and I spent hours trolling the internet for job listings and freaking out about how we would pay our rent.  By the time the first day of classes rolled around, I had done no reading, exercise, or furniture arrangement.  Rather than shrinking to leave room for a clean start, my to-do list had ballooned with the remnants of everything I had hoped to do, as well as everything that I now had to do – and do quickly.

It’s a scenario I had laugh at now, though only with the added wisdom of that’s how such things seem to go, not, as I might have hoped, now I know how to avoid repeating those mistakes.  Because every time I face a big task or transition, I plan – no, fantasize – about how I will get everything else squared away so that when the looming challenge arrives, I will be able to devote to it my full time and attention.  I crave the satisfaction of completing an entire list of tasks, thus leaving myself free to focus on just one thing.  I’ll plan to spend a Saturday doing laundry, paying bills, returning phone calls, and cleaning, for example, leaving Sunday free for some reading or writing.  I’ll promise myself that I will complete all of my dictations from my recent discharges before switching to a busy new service area at the hospital.  I’ll swear to my husband that I will finish making the personalized coasters and knitting the various scarves that were all started with great zeal but have become just another chore to complete before I go and buy beads for a bracelet and fabric to make a new dress.  Each time I fall short of completing the tasks I have set before myself (usually with the goal of clearing time and space for additional, though more enjoyable, tasks), I feel both overwhelmed by what remains to be done as well as disappointed and frustrated at my failure.  Emotionally I am slammed, though my downfall has occurred by my own design.

As I sit here writing this, I am perched in the home that we just purchased, on one of two chairs whose surfaces are not piled high with our belongings.  I am surrounded by boxes whose contents spill out haphazardly as if begging to find homes in yet-to-be-cleaned drawers and cupboards.  I have not joined a gym, changed the registration on the cars, or even set up our Internet connection.  It is the first day of a new rotation and I have yet to call Medical Records to find out which dictations I still owe.  And my crafts projects – there at least three of them that I can name, all unfinished and some still waiting to be started – have all been packed up and dragged along on this journey.

Here I am again.  I’m still irritated, yes, and at times so taken aback by the number of things that need to be done, let alone the number of additional things that I would really like to do, that I am paralyzed and unable to dive into any of the tasks.  I am reasonably confident that when all of the mess has been cleared and I find that I am still functioning at work and have eked out the time to write a few words, I will sigh with relief and think somewhat condescendingly to myself, Of course it didn’t go as planned, but it turned out all right, just like it always does.  At least I hope I will.

For some reason, this lesson – that I won’t ever finish every looming task and find myself with a glorious clearing of time, free for me to devote to whatever leisure activity I desire, and yet things will still turn out ok in the end – is one that it seems I need to keep re-learning.  Perhaps it’s because I still have a lot of work to do on myself.

Or perhaps it’s because that lesson, though so seemingly obvious each time it appears, is actually really important and worth repeating.

Collision

For this week’s post, I’m going to direct you to The Writers’ Circle, an online literary and art magazine, where I am very pleased to have my creative nonfiction piece, “Collision,” published this fall. 

Click here to read it: http://www.riwriterscircle.com/rebeccamy.aspx

The New Doctor

As I drove to my first shift of residency, my first shift as a doctor, all I could think about was my friend’s dog.

***

During my last year of medical school, my husband had moved to a different city for reasons related to his work.  One perk of our arrangement was that he shared an apartment with a friend who owned a feisty little terrier named Barney.

Barney understood only Italian, his owner’s native language. He was not neutered, and he peed aggressively somewhere along nearly every block that we passed during the long walks we took together whenever I visited.  He forced his way into our bedroom at inopportune times, wagging his stubby tail insistently and delivering one of the many tennis balls that were always underfoot.  Every time we left the apartment, he fixed us with his studiously sad gaze, and he jumped in circles and barked with glee each time we returned.

One Friday night late in the spring of that last year of school, I arrived in the city early enough for a dinner out with my husband, his roommate, and a few other friends. We lingered over our sushi, and by the time we strolled home it was close to midnight.  Barney greeted us with his usual fervor and then my husband and I headed down the hall to our section of the apartment.

I took the bathroom first, fishing out the toothbrush and soap that I kept stashed in the medicine cabinet.  Over the running water I heard my name called.  At first I ignored it, slightly irritated by the lack of privacy that my husband and his roommate had established.

Then another voice called, one of the others who had accompanied us upstairs.  “Becky?”  Its higher pitch carried clearly through the hallway.  “We need you.  It’s Barney.”

In the living room, they were crouched on the floor around him.  He lay on his back, his legs twitching.

“Is it a seizure?  Or a heart thing?”  His owner spoke without turning away from his dog.

Despite his personality and antics, Barney was not a young dog.  He had a heart condition and a murmur that was clear even to my own newbie ears.  But he took daily medications – buried in a dollop of peanut butter – and other than a ban on swimming in his favorite pond, there had as yet been no tangible effects on his daily life.

 I don’t know what it is, I thought first.  Could it be a seizure? Mere months from graduation, I had never seen a seizure, and certainly had never seen one in a dog.  I had read plenty, had attended lectures about them, even answered exam questions on the topic, but these left me with no visceral experience upon which to draw.  Weren’t seizures big, dramatic affairs?  Surely something more than these low-amplitude shakes?

I asked questions.  How had they found him?  How had it started?  In the background some small part of my mind regained control and murmured louder and louder, It’s a seizure, this must be what a seizure looks like.

“It’s a seizure,” I finally said, trying to keep my voice from trailing up in uncertainty.  “It isn’t his heart, it’s a seizure.”

We were all quiet for a moment.  Barney continued to shake.  Then my friend turned to me.

“What do we do, Doctor?”

I looked up to protest, wondering perversely if he might be joking.  Several months still stood between me and my degree.  But in his eyes I saw deep fear and a plea for help.  To him, a few cushy electives meant nothing. To him, I was a doctor.

I fumbled through more of what I had studied but had yet to truly know.  If we were in a hospital, I would ask for Ativan – I think that’s the first drug to use.  But there’s no Ativan here.  What do you do for a seizure that’s not in a hospital?  Idon’tknowIdon’tknowIdon’tknow.

“Is there an animal hospital with an emergency room nearby?”  I asked.

But he’s a grad student, half of my brain shouted.  A trip to the emergency room will take half the night and cost hundreds.  And the seizure may break on its own.

And what if it doesn’t? screamed the other half.  I recalled that some resolved without medication, but how long did it take?  How long should I wait?

Then, finally, one defining thought: This is Barney.  Don’t make the wrong call.

“Let’s go,” I said.

I rolled to my feet and Barney’s legs stilled.  Gently, his owner eased him onto his side and stroked his head, murmuring softly. I fell back to my knees, stroking Barney’s side, feeling comfort in the smooth rise and fall of his belly beneath my hand.  He remained still, eyes glazed and unfocused for a few more minutes before he became himself once more.

 ***

It had been easy to go along with the big deal that was made about becoming a doctor.   Just days before starting residency, at a wedding of a fellow graduate, the proud parents had invited all of the freshly-minted MDs out onto the dance floor for a group photo. The banquet hall had erupted in applause.

I felt confident as long as things remained abstract, as long as I focused on the already-accomplished in place of the yet-to-come.  Yes, I had studied for four years, rotated with clinical teams throughout the hospital, earned good grades and a residency of my choice. But I had reached the end, and there was still so much I had not seen or heard or touched.

Yet somehow I was a doctor.  And now I would be called upon to do doctorly things, to diagnose and choose treatments and respond in emergencies.  And I was terrified.

Standing on that dance floor, I had let myself feel confident.  Away from my new coat and badge, I had breathed freely in the belief that with time I would learn what I had yet to know.  But as I drove toward the hospital for my first night in my new role, all I could see were Barney’s shaking legs and his owner’s pleading eyes.  I took a deep breath and continued to drive.