by Ratul Bhattacharyya
My favorite experience from this semester has been with neonatal patients. Nothing could grab my attention more than the four day old child that Dr. Donald of the Pediatrics department allowed me to examine. After just watching my peers examine a healthy newborn in the other room, it was my turn to examine a child that was not as fortunate. As the infant I held asleep in my hands displayed irregular breathing patterns, Dr. Donald told us that the baby was also refusing to take the mother’s breast.
One room away I had just watched my friends have an upbeat conversation with mother about her healthy baby of four days. However, at this moment the mother of the child I held sat in the corner appearing anxious, overwhelmed and greatly sad. Not just by the progress of the child but perhaps by life itself, I thought. I might not have been in a position to engage in the type of happy story I had just seen in the room next door, but I knew I had to make something of my time with this child. “We have to find out what’s different about this baby,” is what I told the two members of my group joining me for the encounter. I let my two partners listen for heart and lung sounds while I made sure to keep the child asleep in my hands. They commented on the child’s breathing and the possibility of some skin rashes but I didn’t really pay much attention to their suggestions. I just couldn’t take my eyes of that baby.
The things I came to learn that day have made me think about a lot of things. Dr. Donald later told us that the second child’s mother had been a victim of sexual abuse, and that her child probably had an infection. What a vicious cycle, I told myself. One child was born to a loving family with the means to care for it. While the baby in my arms was born with an infection and a mother that seemed so deeply damaged.
We learn about infection every day, I thought, as well as things like APGAR scores and vital signs. But what I learned through this experience resonated with me more than most of my basic science lectures. We decided this baby needed to be cultured and monitored closely. Sure, the infection could be diagnosed and hopefully treated, but for this child I don’t think that would be enough. What a crazy world we live in, I thought. So many of us are born to overwhelming circumstances and so far behind those of means. How slight our chances can be for success even from our very first days. People of privilege like myself may never have to contend with that degree of adversity. Overall, I’m glad that I’m training for a career that strives for the interests of both these groups. Being in a hospital makes one realize how vulnerable we all are as human beings.
As medical students and veterans of SGU’s Basic Science curriculum, we may feel like we have learned a lot by the end of 5th term. We have probably had to grow a good deal as people too. Yet, nothing can affect me as much as the type of scenario I experienced that day. Nothing can excite me as much as knowing that my livelihood may one day depend on serving these types of people. Along with the more routine and unremarkable cases that a physician makes a career of, I want to believe that my future will also allow me to reach out to people such as the baby I held in my arms.
But I’ll be honest, it’s not all optimism that keeps me driven to continue in this career. The level of desperation and exhaustion I saw that day makes me feel like I could be needed someday. It might be a selfish course for fulfillment but I know that certain things just make me feel more alive than others. Experiences such as visiting the hospital allow me to appreciate what my medical education will be used for. Associating validation through test scores and other measures of comparison can only mean so much to me. I am forever grateful for the basic principles I have learned on this island as well as the self-confidence I have gained by surmounting the challenges of every term. But deep inside, I know this part of my training is just about over.
It’s time to leave the lecture halls and make something of this knowledge. Sure, the USMLE exams will be my ticket to a better future but there’s so much more to that future; much more than I can truly comprehend at this point. My peers and I barely even know how to talk to patients properly, let alone how to best attend to their wellbeing. Perhaps some of us resent all the time we have spent engaging with only lectures and books but I know it will be worth it. Of course, I’ll have to continue reading and preparing for examinations but I know that my efforts will lead to something better. Every lost weekend, holiday, and moment away from home has been and will be sacrificed for good reason. If they ultimately allow me to help someone like the child I held, my life will be more than fulfilling. I’m excited for what will happen next…