The class of 2018 Gold Humanism Honor Society is proud to announce this year’s winner of the Humanism in Medicine Essay contest, Ms. Lucie Calderon of the Class of 2019.
Editor’s Note: I had the privilege and honor of hearing Lucie read her winning essay at the White Coat Ceremony on April 21st. It truly is an amazing piece, not only representative of her humanism, but also of her writing ability. I was moved nearly to tears, as were many people in the audience, by her words. With Lucie’s permission, I have included her essay below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. (Andrew D. Hollenbach, Ph.D., Head Editor, The Pulse)
“It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see.” Henry David Thoreau
It’s the day after Valentine’s Day. Yesterday, the unit was alive with nurses ushering heart-shaped candies and Disney cards into the hands of the patients on floor 4 West. Today, the halls are strung with remnants of red ribbon that wrap from patient room to patient room, a stinging reminder of yet another of their many holidays spent at the oncology unit at Children’s Hospital.
My patient Emily is cheerful, chewing on bits of a strawberry snowball spoon-fed by her mother, her red-stained mouth relearning the motions of how to eat– crunch, release, crunch, swallow. Emily is trapped beneath a mound of twisted blankets that reaches up to her neck and IVs that stretch across her bed, but she is beautiful, even without her hair, and her slanted palpebral fissures contouring her bright blue-speckled eyes grace her with an essence of youth and innocence.
“How are you feeling today, Ms. Emily?” I ask. Her eyes travel slowly to meet my gaze, but her head stays fixed in position as she opens her mouth for another spoonful of snowball.
“She’s feeling better today,” her mother interjects as she delicately wipes the ice spilling from Emily’s lips. “She’s really loving this strawberry snowball. It’s the closest thing to real food that she’s had in two weeks, and let me tell you, she was really heartbroken that she couldn’t eat her Valentine’s candy yesterday.” Her glance turns towards Emily’s bedside table, and sure enough, there was a small village of pink and white M&Ms and red-striped Hershey’s kisses, untouched. “She’ll be saving those for later,” her mother smiles.
We dive into our morning routine of questions. How many episodes of diarrhea this morning? Any blood in her stool? Any nausea or vomiting? Was she able to eat anything last night? Her mother has her answers down to a science after 15 days of this hospital stay for compounding problems following a bout of viral gastroenteritis, a 1 year diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic lymphoma, and a lifetime of hospital visits associated with having Trisomy 21.
We are mid-question when our interview is interrupted by three sheepish knocks. The door cracks open, and a single balloon creeps its way into the room. It’s followed by a second balloon and then another, and another, and another, and another, until finally the door is pushed ajar by an impressive bundle of heart-shaped balloons swelling with messages of love and well-wishes. At the base of the balloons was a small boy who gripped gingerly at the silver ties, followed by two adults I presumed to be his parents.
The boy skipped towards the center of the room, and without a moment’s hesitation, he began wrapping a balloon at the foot of Emily’s bed, chanting “Happy Belated Valentine’s Day!” as his parents waved, echoing their son’s wishes from the doorway. Emily beamed, her eyes fixated at the giant heart that danced happily with the beat of the air conditioning, and the boy and his parents disappeared with the bundle of balloons as quickly as they came.
The door closed. “Do you know them?” I asked.
“They look familiar… but no, I don’t think so,” Emily’s mother replied as she stroked her daughter’s scant tufts of remaining hair.
We finished our round of questions, and I placed my stethoscope into my white coat. Emily was still staring enchantingly at her balloon when I left the room.
Later that morning, I am rounding with my team outside a patient’s room. My classmate is presenting one of the floor favorites, a bright-spirited boy with suspected avascular necrosis and a devout passion for Paw Patrol.
“Excuse me!” a voice interrupts. I look down to see the same boy with his two parents, his fingers wrapped around what had dwindled down to two balloons, which were still bumping and twisting with his happy stride. Our team parted down the middle to allow the boy and his balloons through, and his parents followed along, stopping at the front of the pack to greet Dr. Varaux, our oncology attending.
“Anne! Mark!” Dr. Varaux exclaimed as she wrapped each of the parents in a full, warm embrace. “So wonderful to see you two. Looks like James is doing well?” she laughed as she watched him skip down the hall with his balloons.
“Ah yes, as energetic as ever!” Anne replied. “He has two more balloons to deliver, and then we’re joining my brother for dinner tonight. He’s making gumbo for us,” she said, a hint of solemnity ending her sentence.
Dr. Varaux’s eyes smiled sadly in response. She wished them farewell and returned her attention to my classmate, who had since resumed her patient presentation. My mind slipped away as I watched James pop into two more rooms, delivering the last of his Valentine’s balloons each with a rehearsed, “Happy Belated Valentine’s Day!” When he walked out of the last room, his mother bent down to plant a kiss on his forehead, and the three of them walked out of the hospital wing, empty-handed.
When we finished rounding later that afternoon, I lingered back.
“Dr. Varaux, who were those people with the balloons? Are they hospital volunteers?”
Dr. Varaux put down her pen and slipped her glasses into her coat pocket. “The Geralds? Oh no, no, they’re not volunteers. Their son was a patient of mine 4 years ago. He died on Valentine’s Day, so his parents and his younger brother come by the oncology unit every year and deliver balloons to the patients on the floor. It’s a tough day for them, but I suspect it brings them great joy to see a smile break on the children’s faces. Andy was such a happy kid… He loved balloons.” Dr. Varaux paused for a moment longer, and then she put her glasses back on and returned to writing her notes.
My heart dropped. Another moment of silence weighed heavily in the air.
I must have looked devastated because my attending lifted her gaze and smiled at me. “You can choose to relive the sad parts of the job, or you can see all the happiness you bring these families, all the extra time you afford them… all the kids that DO get better and can leave this hospital cancer-free. It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. I don’t think there’s a more rewarding job in the world.” She looked at me a little while longer. “Now, don’t you have progress notes to write? We’ve got our hands full with patients to help!”
And so I walked away to write my notes, a balloon of perspective lifting my step.