I’m drafting this post in my family’s hotel room in a resort on a beach in Cancún, Mexico. Before arriving, I didn’t realize that Cancún is on the Yucatán peninsula, where 65 million years ago a big-ass meteor caused a mass extinction that nearly ended all biodiversity on the planet.
But life went on.
I’m here passing some time during my two-week winter break. It’s a welcome change of pace. I feel as if I’ve just emerged, gasping for breath, at the surface of a deep dark pool of clerkships. It’s a suitable analogy not just because I went snorkeling in brilliantly clear cenote water but because last year actually felt like a protracted dive into the depths of medicine. When you’re submerged underwater, you’re acutely aware of each second of precious oxygen escaping, but each dive is over before you realize it. And when you emerge, you might be surprised to find yourself far from where you started, pushed askew by the powerful currents underneath.
When I was busy this year, life continued on around me.
I’m reminded of that by catching up with friends I rarely have the opportunity to see. An old high school friend visited our hometown with her husband and 2-year-old tagging along. The last time we saw each other, the daughter didn’t exist. I saw my cousin too, a cousin who attended Weill Cornell 11 years before me, who is now working as an attending physician and taking photos of his 3.5-year-old. I have three pending wedding invites from non-med school friends (and I’ll attend, med school permitting). Meanwhile, I’ve made little durable progress in my own dating life in one year… womp womp.
Life goes on, even when it feels like it’s frozen.
For healthcare workers, the hospital never changes that much. It’s a culture steeped in tradition and bogged down by tremendous inertia. Rounding, entering orders, handing off. There are always patients there, and the process is unchanged no matter who is there.
Rotations felt short because I found myself constantly navigating new teams and new services. I was still learning the ropes on medicine when I realized it was late December and I was doing the exact same thing as in mid February. Well, I suppose I became more jaded…
When a patient is admitted to the hospital (or stuck perpetually in the ED), it’s as if their outside life is suspended. There’s a whole new timeline during which they linger in the hospital and let their body mend. When they’re discharged, life goes on, with or without them. Patients who are young enough go back to work with a doctor’s note (a piece of generic letterhead we just print off, it’s so casual). Maybe they’ll get some leeway from their bosses to get back into the flow. Maybe they’ll work fewer hours because they’re less efficient, more tired, or more busy being chronically sick.
Sometimes, life doesn’t go on.
Life ends for some patients in our hospital, like for three young patients we had in the past few weeks. One died with us. One we sent home knowing he’d die in a month, and he’s dead now. One patient we sent home with a death sentence in 6 months. He was still in the process of comprehending his diagnosis and prognosis, but I think he’s going to quit his job and go travel the world and enjoy the company of his family while he can.
While strolling down the beach here in Cancún, I thought I passed by a sick person. Her head was freshly shaven, her body was of slightly the wrong shape and color, and she just appeared tired. I wondered if she was dying.
The pendulum swings, the clock ticks, the bells chime. After a long year of time running too fast, I’m here on this tropical paradise trying to pass time, but all I’m doing is thinking about is time’s relentless passage. Kids grow, friends fall in love, we all get older, some people get sick, most of them get better.
Actually, life always ends, doesn’t it? We all die. We’re all on our way to dying, even now, but that’s okay. People will mourn, but collectively our life goes on.
I think I’ll go for a swim now.