When you ask a physician why they became a doctor there is often a pattern that emerges. It is usually one of three things: they have family members who were doctors, they went through a significant health issue of their own or they had a family member or close friend who went through a serious health issue. In my case, it was the latter. Sadly, there have been many such experiences with people I love but let me share with you the first I can remember.
I was five years old. She was my neighbor, the only person who could over-rule my mother on how long I could stay at her home playing or how many cookies I could eat when we had tea parties. She was the first grown up who treated me like an adult. When she was admitted to the hospital on hospice, my mother tried to prepare me for what I would see, telling me that our friend no longer had hair. I told her that I didn’t care; I missed her, and I just wanted to see her.
The memory is so strong that I can still smell the faint antiseptic in the air from the tile floors. The room was dimly lit with a fluorescent light over the head of the bed. My neighbor sat in the bed, her gown hanging on her frame that was now gaunt and her beautiful hair now just a memory, robbed by the chemotherapy.
We could not stay long, as children under twelve years old were not technically permitted into patient rooms at that time. I said “Hi” and gave a shy wave not knowing what else to do or say. It was enough to just be there together. My friend looked so small and frail in her bed. The woman whom I knew to be so full of life was now living in the shadow of death. I did not know it then, but that would be the last time I saw her alive.
Pancreatic cancer took her away just a few months after the diagnosis was given. I had so many questions. Most of them started with “Why?” That was the first time I had ever been in a hospital, but it would be just one of many times throughout my life where I would be a concerned loved one visiting a sick friend or family member. The death of my neighbor started my journey to become a doctor, a journey to find answers, only to learn that there is always another patient and another question, yet I persist. This is how I honor her memory.