Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why I Do This

This is my personal statement from my application for medical school. I'm putting this up mostly because I was just reading something that reminded me about my grandmother and the countless important lessons she taught me as I was growing up. I knew when I was writing this that some of the opinions I expressed were going to hurt me if the wrong person read this, but honestly, I didn't really give a shit. And in the end, I think being true to myself helped me find a school that wanted me for me. This is part of who I am and this is why I'm doing this. I hope this helps others think about what is really important to them, or even inspires them to write about something more than a running list of credentials in their own personal statement. But mostly this is here to remind me, and to say thanks to my grandmother. You are missed.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” the doctor had asked. Rain was slowly pooling up on the flat roof of the adjacent hospital ward, just outside the window, invisible from the corner where my grandmother’s bed sat. “Yea,” she replied, gesturing toward the window of her cramped room, “you can throw me out the window.” The doctor (as if he had just been slapped by a bedpan) stood staring at her, his mouth moving awkwardly yet seemingly unable to form an audible or adequate response. The problem, you see, is that she was completely serious.

These were the moments – the final days, hours, and memories that I shared with the woman who had raised me – that I learned how complicated medicine can be. The truth is that you already know most of the reasons why I want to go to medical school. Like every other qualified applicant, I want to help the sick, make a difference in the lives of others, and enjoy the utter privilege of being able to learn throughout the rest of my life. I want to go to medical school to learn the tools that help make a great doctor, and to gain an understanding of a subject that I am intensely interested in. But I have also, for better or worse, learned that “healing” can mean very different things to a patient and a doctor. That is, I also want to go to medical school to learn what to do when all a patient wants is to be thrown out the window.

My grandmother taught me that life isn’t an episode of “ER,” and that everyone can’t always be saved. And for a pre-med, a doctor, or a loved one, this is both a painful and important lesson to learn. It seems that almost all of my pre-med friends hope to someday become surgeons. And while being a surgeon is certainly a prestigious and incredibly challenging job, this singular aspiration certainly speaks to the “reality” that we as students of the 21st century inhabit. We are taught to fix problems; we open, operate, and suture our wounds. Or at least we try. But what do we do when the wound doesn’t close? Most of us stand by, mouths moving, but unable to speak.

I don’t just want to learn the most effective way to fight the cancer that killed my grandmother, and I don’t just want to continue working in the lab to help find a cure that may one day save others from suffering the way that she did. I also want to learn how to continue to help, and how to cope, as a human and a doctor, when the only healing left for a patient is death. I can say that last summer I took at least the first step toward learning perhaps the most important lesson a future doctor can learn: how to deal with death.

When my grandmother was transferred from her local community hospital in the Bronx to Calvary Hospital, where I happened to be volunteering at the time, I was devastated. Her transfer to Calvary, a hospital specializing in the care of terminal cancer patients, meant that there was no hope. Or was there? It amazed me when after months of suffering, I saw her smile for the first time thanks to the wonderful nurses, doctors, and volunteers working at Calvary. I learned about a type of medicine that I hadn’t known existed: the kind that touches people’s spirits. And I re-learned an important lesson that my Dad had inadvertently taught me years before, that sometimes simple human acts of kindness and communication (in his case ranting and raving with his patients about the Yankees) are almost as important as any medicine.

My grandmother taught me that sometimes healing is as simple as sharing a great band (and half a headphone) with someone you love. My father taught me that patients can also heal doctors. And I suppose that ultimately, I had to begin teaching myself how to deal with death. And I can honestly say that after all of my experiences I still don’t know everything that it takes to be a great doctor. But I have seen many of the most important qualities in the mentors, friends, and family that I have had the privilege of learning from. I have learned that one of the most important qualities for a doctor is to never assume that you know all the answers, to never assume that everything can be “fixed” without complications. I am applying to medical school so that I can continue to search for answers to some of the hardest questions, like death, whether they lie in an anatomy textbook or in the spirit of a patient, because sometimes it isn’t as easy as reminding a patient, “there’s a roof outside your window.”

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