An Opening Night’s Dream, and the Events Thereof

A.N. A bit different from the usual. My crack at romantic-comedy-spoof.

It was three days to opening night, and Tom Banks was thrilled. Everything was just as he’d imagined: the sets, the costumes, the musical scores… not to mention the actors. It was the dream cast, Tom was sure of it. The mere novelty of the plot had managed to attract stars from all of the major acting houses to the auditions, and Tom had gotten his pick of the flock.

Naomi Burns, Brooklyn Leigh, Jackson O’Leary, and Dylan King. Each a star in his own right, but, together, an unstoppable blaze. Tom could picture it now: their photographs plastered on the front page of every major newspaper and social media site. The only uncertainty was which shot they’d pick. The epic curtain call? The double-time romantic ballad? Or maybe the catchy, cast-wide dance number?

But, as good as they were, the cast was young (even in Broadway years), and their minds often drifted towards other things. Like each other. Tom could have written a soap opera based on the whole thing, if he were a soap opera sort of fellow. You see, when a group of attractive young people are placed in close quarters for such long hours, something quite specific is bound to happen. And happen it had. Dylan was head-over-heels for Brooklyn, who had fallen for Jackson, who was smitten with Naomi. And Naomi herself? Tom wasn’t quite sure there. She did have a habit of setting people up, though her targets were quite unpredictable and, often, poorly chosen. Tom had heard rumours that Naomi had played a rather large role in setting up Taylor Swift with seven of her past eight boyfriends. Hardly successful relationships, although they had produced quite lucrative albums.

But as for falling in love herself, Tom wasn’t sure. Naomi did seem to have her head in the clouds. Tom doubted she’d notice a boy unless he landed in her lap.

 

It was the evening of one of their final rehearsals, Naomi’s latest scheme was well-underway. Three of the four actors were in their respective dressing rooms, facing similar dilemmas.

Brooklyn Leigh eyed the plain, unaddressed envelope on her dressing room table warily before pouncing, ripping the paper open with a swift, fluid motion. The typed note was concise:

 

Brooklyn,

 

I love you. I can’t hide it any longer. If you love me, too, knock on my dressing room door twice, and I’ll meet you on the rooftop after rehearsal.

 

J.O.

 

At the same time, young Dylan King was opening a similar envelope, albeit with much more caution.

 

Dylan,

 

My eyes light up only for you. If I can prove my love for you, knock twice on my dressing room door, and I’ll meet you on the rooftop after rehearsal.

 

B.L.

 

Of course, both young dreamers leapt from their chairs and raced to their beloved’s dressing room, knocking twice on the door. There was no answer either time because 1) Brooklyn had left, and 2) Jackson O’Leary was busy trying to make sense of a letter of his own.

 

Jackson,

 

After rehearsal, can you put on your skeleton costume with the glow-in-the-dark zombie mask and come to the roof.

 

Thanks!

 

Naomi Burns had thrown in her cards. The rehearsal was difficult, and Tom knew something had happened. Dylan was winking at Brooklyn, who was trying to hold hands with a baffled Jackson. Naomi was observed the whole thing with a keen interest, and an unwitting Tom retreated to the rooftop patio after the final failed number to try to gather his thoughts.

Why had Naomi interfered now, of all times? This show was crucial, the turning point in Tom’s career! His actors were already established, but he wasn’t. Broadway was merciless; one flop was all it took to turn an aspiring director out onto the streets.

 

It wasn’t long before Tom’s pensive solitude was met with company. First Brooklyn appeared, a fresh coat of red lipstick applied and her hair let loose. Moments later, Dylan appeared. “Brooklyn,” he started. “I’m so…”

“Not now, Dylan,” Brooklyn said, fiercely waving her hands. “I’m waiting for Jackson. It’s important.”

“Jackson?!” he said. “But your note said you were waiting for me!”

“Note? What note?”

The door to the roof opened once more. “Okay, gang! Who ordered the skeleton costume with the…”

“ACK!” shrieked Brooklyn, clinging onto Dylan’s shirt as he wrapped an arm around her. “What is THAT?”

“That’s Jackson,” Tom said, with growing irritation. “You’ve been Naomi-fied.”

“Naomi?” said Dylan, as Brooklyn slapped his arm away. “You mean she tried to set us all up again?”

“Set us up?” Jackson said, ripping off the zombie mask. “You lot got letters, too? Those must’ve been from her.”

“So…you didn’t want to meet me up here, Jackson?” said Brooklyn. “I should’ve known it was too good to be true.”

“Naomi is trying to set us up? With each other?” said Dylan. “I thought she was busy with Taylor Swift.”

Tom made  a mental note to invite Taylor Swift to opening night. Perhaps Naomi would forget about her co-workers in light of a more exciting romance to set up.

But the trio were more than annoyed, and set their personal feelings aside to plot an appropriate response to their co-star’s failed ruse.

 

The next morning, Naomi Burns arrived in her dressing room to find a typed note in a plain, white envelope.

 

Naomi,

 

I can’t stand it any more. I’m in love with you. Knock on my door three times if you love me, too.

 

  1. K.

 

The plan might have been fool-proof if it weren’t for the immediate response. “DYLAN!” Naomi had squealed, throwing her arms around the shocked male who had opened the door after the tenth knock, punctuated by squeals of delight. “I’m sooooo in love with you, too. AAAAAAHHHH! THIS IS PERFECT!!!!! AND TOMORROW’S OPENING NIGHT, TOO!!! THIS IS THE BEST DAY OF MY WHOLE ENTIRE LIFE!!!!!”

 

If possible, the rehearsal that day went even worse than the night before. Naomi wouldn’t stop trying to kiss Dylan, who was staring sadly at Brooklyn, who was attempting to hold hands with Jackson, who was trying unsuccessfully to pull Naomi and Dylan away from each other. It was utter chaos, and Tom Banks was sinking further and further into an abyss of despair. Opening night was only one day away, and his four leads were mad with love and rivalry.

Whoever said all was fair in love and war was wrong. This was not fair, no, not at all.

 

When everyone had left the theatre that night, Tom sat alone on the stage, a single spotlight still shining somewhere above his head. Was this really the end for him? Perhaps he should have picked some less-attractive actors, some more arrogant actresses, a different combination that wouldn’t have fallen foolishly and hopelessly into a hapless love…square? Rectangle?

Maybe it was luck. Maybe Tom wasn’t meant to be a big-whiz Broadway director. Maybe this was just the universe’s way of letting him down gently, letting him know that there was no point in getting his hopes up, letting him now…

“Ah, young love.” An dainty voice rang from the balcony. “So romantic, wouldn’t you say, Tommy?”

“Who’s there?” Tom scowled. “I’m not in the mood for visitors.”

“My name is Titania,” said the voice, coming closer, although Tom could see no one there. “I’m the…”

“Queen of the Fairies,” spat Tom. “Of course. Just what I need. Story time isn’t until tomorrow night, so you can come back then to see the big flop.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Titania. “I’m not a fairy. Fairies don’t exist. Have you seen a doctor lately? I think you’re starting to crack around the edges. Too much pressure. You should learn to relax a little.”

“Uh,huh,” said Tom. “So, could we make this quick? I’m a little tied up at the moment.”

“On the contrary,” said Titania. “You’re at the end of your rope. I think you’d rather benefit from a few knots in your way.”

“What do you want?!” snapped Tom. “And why can’t I see you anywhere?”

“You don’t need to see me. I’m just here to help,” said Titania. “Look to your left. No, no, your other left. Yes. See that, in the vial? It’s a powder. A special, magical powder.”

“I thought you said you weren’t a fairy,” said Tom, picking up the vial with vague disinterest.

“Just because I’m not a fairy doesn’t mean I can’t dabble in the finer arts,” said Titania. “Besides, you need help. You really mustn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Tommy. Just sprinkle the powder on the stage, and your actors will fall in love with the first thing they see. It’s fool-proof. None of this love square-rectangle nonsense.”

Tom considered this. A bit of powder wouldn’t hurt. And, if it did work, it sounded perfect! He would get to play Naomi for once, set these fools up with each other properly, and his play (and his career!) would be saved. “All I have to do is get them to look at each other. When, when, aha! Act Two, Scene One! They all come on together, at the same time. It will be perfect! We’ll do it tomorrow, during our final run-through. Oh, this’ll be perfect!” Tom left the stage cackling, not noticing as the final spotlight gradually faded out.

 

The one thing that Tom Banks didn’t account for, however, was how slippery fine powder can be on a soft felt slippers while they are walking on a polished stage, never mind running. And Act Two, Scene One began with all four main characters running onto the stage at the same time. And so they did, running, jumping, slipping, and falling onto the stage, all at the same time. Tom cringed at the sudden ‘bang’ that echoed across the theatre, but even more so at the prolonged silence which followed.

All four leads were staring, not at each other, but at the stage.

“Wow,” said Naomi. “I never realised how wonderful it was, to stand on the stage.”

“I love being on stage,” said Dylan. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

“I love the stage, period!” said Brooklyn. “And I love acting!”

“This is the best view in the whole world,” said Jackson. “The best place in the whole world!”

“They’re in love with…the stage?” Tom wondered. “Well…that’s not the worst outcome. In fact, it’s probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me!”

 

And that, my friends, is the story of how four rising stars realised their love for the stage just in time for a successful opening night in a comedy so bright it can only be described as an Opening Night’s Dream.

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Dreamy Eyes

The library is noisy, but only I can hear the sounds. The creak of a door handle, the squeak of a chair against polished tile, a cough, a sneeze, a blown nose. The symphony of students hard at work. Or hard at Facebook. Instagram. Snapchat and WhatsApp? Whatever they use these days. I lost track years ago.

I peak out into the open from the shadow of the textbook I’m hiding behind. Harrison’s Internal Medicine. 16th Edition. Outdated and battered. No one will come looking for it. It’s August, which means that a batch of newly-minted medical students will be joining these studious souls on their quest for knowledge and excellence. Ah, the very thought of it makes my wings tingle. Fresh, curious minds just waiting to be filled with knowledge. I retreat back behind Harrison’s and skip a few shelves to the left. Hurst’s The Heart. Possibly the largest book in this entire collection. I snuggle against it, inhaling the sweet, stale scent of a dusty textbook that hasn’t been touched for years. The technological explosion means that there is little need for books. Or for me. But that doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. An unused book has a certain smell, taste, feel. Fragile, yet strong.

The stuff a dreams.

“Wow.” An unwelcome intrusion. I curl up closer to Hurst’s The Heart and scowl. “That is one big book.” Before I can react, Hurst’s The Heart is dragged from its place of honour, leaving me exposed to the glaring fluorescent of the basement-level library. “Wow, so heavy, too. How many chapters are in this thing?!?!”

Big brown eyes, straightened hair, ironed shirt, and brand-new jeans. Must be a first-year. A keen one, by the look of her. Might have been her very first day on campus. By the time they’d been around for a while, both the novelty of studying and dressing to impress had worn off. The end-of-year OSCEs were always met by bloodshot eyes, stained scrubs, and pizza breath. That’s if you saw them at all, of course. Final-year students were rare specimens. Board exam studying was undertaken at more exotic locations, like the gym, the park, or the dinner table, over a bowl of tinned ravioli which expired two years ago.

The girl was still ooh-ing and ah-ing over the brightly coloured pictures and photographs, and I smirked, creeping closer for a better look. Her name tag read ‘Kennedy Park’. A good name for a physician. Doctor Park. Sounded strong, and uncompromising. I crept to the ledge of the shelf for a closer look, but ended up slipping on a rather large pile of dust left behind from the book, tumbling off my perch and landing right on page 37.

“Oh!” said the girl, oddly calm. “Hello!”

“Bah,” I said, dusting myself off before fluttering back to my shelf. “Give me back my book!”

“I’m sorry,” the girl said, closing the cover. “Were you reading it?”

“Silly girl!” I said. “Clearly I was sleeping! Do I look like I could pick up that giant book anymore?”

“I’m sorry,” the girl said again. “I’ve just never seen a library fairy before.”

A library fairy? Where did this girl think she was, Disney World? Where on earth would anyone find a library fairy? “Excuse me,” I said firmly, “but I am not a library fairy. I am the Spirit of Medicine. A-A guardian, if you will. Key to information. Ask, and you shall be told.”

The girl’s eyes filled with wonder. “So, you know everything there is to know? About medicine, I mean?”

How gullible and foolish first-year medical students are! So innocent, so eager to know, so happy to please. “I did, at one point. But I’ve become smaller as time passes. There is not much spirit left in the medical community. And, as the spirit shrinks, so do I?”

The girl’s eyes fell, and her forehead furrowed. “Spirit?”

I waved my hands impatiently. “Silly girl, you must know what spirit is!”

“I do, I do, I’m sorry!” Another thing about medical students. They apologise far too much. That might be part of the reason they are so often used as punching bags. “I just meant, I thought there was a lot of spirit in medicine. I’m happy to be here, for one.”

“It won’t last long,” I said, kicking at a rather large pile of dust. My, but these shelves did get dusty! “Give yourself a year or two, and you’ll be crying in the washrooms for your momma.” As if on queue, there was a crash in the ladies’ room behind us, followed by a loud wail. “Good lungs, that girl’s got.”

“That won’t happen to me.” The girl’s bright grin reflected borderline stupidity. “I want to be here. I really do. I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was six years old. This is a dream come true!”

I shook my head sadly, stepping to the side as the girl replaced Hurst’s The Heart in its rightful spot. “That’s what they all say,” I whispered, more to myself than her. I’d seen hundreds of thousands of medical students grace these corridors over the years. I’d witnessed their eager curiosity, their joy, their pain, their sorrow, their falls. Bit by bit, as the joys dwindles and the sorrows grew, I myself shrunk until I was no larger than a few lines of text in the books they used to read. What happened to the joy of medicine? The delight of healing? Even the newest students these days were focused on grades and research and electives and residency spots. So competitive! No one paused to consider things, to leap for joy, to pursue knowledge for the sake of learning, to learn medicine to help others!

“Well,” the girl said, uncertain. “I guess I’ll see you around.”

“I doubt you will,” I said, curling back into my spot of refuge behind Hurst’s The Heart. “You’ll forget about books and learning soon enough. Good luck with your residency applications.”

“I’ll come back and visit! Promise!” said the girl. “Just you wait and see.”

“Of course,” I said, my tongue heavy as I drifted off to sleep. “Just another empty promise from a dreamy-eyed first-year student…”

lilac’s blooms

i’d hold your hands through wind and rain

if love could shield me from this pain

but i know life won’t be the same

for you’re long gone, and i’m to blame
you faded faster than a lilac’s blooms

like a spark of hope, you died too soon

i reach for you, but there’s nothing there

i hold your hand, but i’m holding air

your face is a blur from a midnight past

too flighty to stay, too perfect to last

we once were forever, but now i’m alone

i’ll forever be lost, for you were my home

Timid

They tell me I’m timid, and call me “too shy”

But they do not know me, nor how loud I can cry

My voice is on pages, in words, black-and-white

And my words throw a punch worse than any fist-fight

It’s a quick party trick, standing still, taking hits

Grit your teeth, curl your hands into tiny little fists,

Look away, run away, let them laugh at your back

But with words you stand up, turn around, and hit back.

They’ll never see it coming. I swear they never do.

To see a story where the villain screams his insults like they do.

And I can bring tears to any hardened-heart’s eyes

With a few simple words, carefully crafted in my mind

See, I’m not really “timid”. I just speak a different way.

I shout with words unspoken, but they’re forever here to stay

I hit you back far harder than you ever could hit me

Your hits may make me sting, but my words will make you bleed.

Circling the Drain

It is twenty past five on a Thursday afternoon. Dr Wong and I are rounding on my last patient, ninety-year-old Mr Patel.

 

“Hello, Mister Patel,” says Dr Wong, the fake cheer in her voice too pathetic to fool even a small child. It is her first day on our ward, an emergency locum called in, and she is tired. She is ready to go home, ready to be done with these patients.  She was speaking with the surgeon on call about a pool and margaritas only a few minutes ago. “How are you today? How’s your pain?”

 

“I’m terrible, thanks for asking,” says Mr Patel, folding the newspaper he was reading neatly in his lap. “I’m sick of this place. Takes forever to get anything done. And you doctors come around here at your own convenience. I ask and ask, but no one comes. I want to know what’s going on. I’ve been in here long enough. I want some answers. I’m like a goddam prisoner here, and I’m real sick of you doctors not telling me anything.” Mr Patel is using the same rant he’s used for the past week, even though I’ve addressed everything twice today alone. Perhaps he thinks that Dr Wong might give him more answers, an idea not completely unfounded. She is the doctor, after all. But Dr Wong stiffens, as if Mr Patel’s words are personally insulting. “I’m sorry, sir,” she says. I can hear her teeth gritting from across the room, where I stand. “But doctors are very busy people, and I’m sorry if you don’t realise that you’re not the only patient on this floor. Or this hospital.”

 

I don’t know who is more taken aback by this outburst, Mr Patel or me. Mr Patel has been here for over one month without diagnosis or treatment with any curative intent. His CT scan alone was delayed four times over the past twelve days. To me, Mr Patel has every right to be upset. His situation is a mixture of bad luck, failed communication, and, yes, blatant incompetence on several staff members’ parts. But, as upset as he is, Mr Patel’s family is even angrier. I have met all four of his sons, two of his three daughters, two daughter-in-laws, five grandchildren, a brother, a neighbour, and, of course, his ever-present wife, with her elaborate embroidery she works on by the window.

 

But Dr Wong doesn’t know this. All she sees is a wrinkly old man who reeks of faeces and stale urine standing between her and her pool and margaritas. Dr Wong is tired. She is worn-down. Her empathy metre has run out years ago. I make excuses for her as her mouth opens, spilling words out. “Your CT scan results came back,” she says, her voice devoid of emotion, her eyes bored. “They show that you’ve got lung cancer, spread to the liver, brain, and most of the bones. There’s some thick parts around the bladder, too. Not sure what that is, but no use in looking, really. You’ll be dead before we can get the test results back. Nothing we can do. You’d better call in any family from out of town,” Dr Wong nods to the corner, acknowledging Mr Patel’s wife for the first time. “Won’t be long, now.”

 

With those words, Dr Wong turned on her heels, and left the room. “Hey, kid, consult palliative care,” she calls to me. “There’s probably no point in a hospice referral, but we’d better put it in to make the admin happy. Palliative closes at three-thirty, so get to it.”

 

Mr Patel’s wife is crying. Her eyes are big, red, and puffy, and her embroidery has been discarded on the floor. I place a hand on her shoulder, searching for words of comfort, kindness, anything to ease the blow they have just been given. But Dr Wong’s screeching voice is calling me outside the room, a pulsing distraction, and I can only squeeze her shoulder before running outside, grabbing the ringing telephone from the outstretched hand to speak with the palliative care nurse. Dr Wong interrupts every few seconds before grabbing the phone back. “Stupid girl,” she says. “Can’t you even do a simple consult? Brad,” she says to the phone. “The man’s dying. Room 32. Scopolamine, hydromorph, do what you have to do. Sure, the kid’ll do a hospice referral, but he’s circling the drain. Yep. Yep, he’s not leaving this place.”

 

Fifty-two years ago, Mr Patel quit his job as a mechanic to open the first of a successful chain of daycares, of which he was still the honorary president. He had spent a good half-hour this morning describing the details to me, noting that many of his former charges had gone on to become politicians, teachers, lawyers, doctors, artists. His eyes glimmered with hope and energy when he spoke about the children. “Every child is a new world,” he told me. “It only takes one person to change the world. For better or for worse, well, that remains to be seen. But when you’re in a room full of thirty children…think of all the things that those thirty could do to make this world a better place!”

 

But, the next morning, when I go to see Mr Patel, he is Cheynes-Stoking on the bed. His breaths are ragged, uneven and laboured. His eyes are wide, but unseeing. There is family gathered around the bed: his wife, two sons, two daughter-in-laws, and a little girl. I take Mr Patel’s hand, and squeeze it. There is a feeble response, but it is so weak I am not sure if I have imagined it.

 

I want to ask what happened, what’s happening, but I’m not sure how. The words have died in my throat, and my tongue is useless. But Mrs Patel spares me the agony of standing in silence. “He went down overnight,” she says, the ever-present embroidery now strangely missing. “Didn’t eat supper, didn’t sleep, just…this.”

 

“Oh,” I say. I need to say something. I have to say something. Some word of comfort, some solace, some support. But years and years of training fly out the window, and I squeeze Mr Patel’s hand, only to get no response this time.

 

“So,” says Mrs Patel, “I guess we just wait? For the hospice bed?” Mr Patel is circling the drain, medical lingo for ‘actively dying’. But there is no need to reiterate what we both know, so I just say, “Yes. Yes, I think that’s the plan. I put the request in yesterday.”

 

Mrs Patel nods, her expression as blank as I feel.  “We’ll be around all day,” I say, citing Dr Wong’s presence as if she might be some sort of assistance or comfort. “Just call if you need anything.”

 

Mr Patel dies several hours later. I’m in the room when Dr Wong pronounces him, not bothering to listen to his heart or check reflexes. There’s really no need to; Mr Patel’s mouth is open, eyes wide, body stiff and still, even in this early hour. The death certificate says ‘metastatic lung cancer’, but I know better. Mr Patel declined more quickly in twelve hours than in the past four weeks I had known him. He died of a broken heart, of lost hope, of crushed dreams. I want to blame Dr Wong. I am furious that she was so matter-of-fact, so unkind.

 

But she is human. How many patients has she seen die? You can’t feel for everyone. If you do, you’ll get worn out. Either way, you’ll end up like Dr Wong, a bright-eyed medical student hidden beneath the stony, cold-edged, uncaring exterior. I wonder if she realises that anyone could take offense to her behaviour.

 

There is a complaint filed against Dr Wong, but it is brushed off as the last resort of a grieving family to make some sense of their loved one’s passing. I receive a new patient, a Mrs Rebecca O’Leary in with pancreatitis. She has two children and five dogs. She is sent home after five days, and I move on. I see more patients. Some of them go home. Some of them don’t. A kinder, younger physician calls them ‘celestial discharges’. But I’m not used to it. Not here, not yet. Will I ever be? I’m not sure. I hope not, because, if I do, I will have become just like Dr Wong herself.

 

And still, with every dying patient I see, my tongue still freezes, and I feel my heart freeze still. But, really, what can you say, when a patient of yours is circling the drain?

Hand

I held the hand of a dying man

As he whispered words I couldn’t understand

His voice was harsh, and his throat was raw

But his eyes were the only thing I saw

They were lifeless, while he lay still

Clinging to life, for he hadn’t his fill

But, as with all things, life, too, must end

His hand went limp, and, like that, he was dead

Roller Coaster

Your love’s a roller coaster

It has its ups and downs

You build me to the highest peak

But then I plummet down

You twirl me through the loop-de-loops

So I can’t catch my breath

And when you freeze us upside down

I’m falling to my death

I never know what’s happening

Until we’re at the end

But when you say it’s over I find

I want to go again

And so I strap myself inside

And promise to be brave

But when I’m miles above the ground

I know nothing’s ever safe

To the One, who Lives with Death

I fell in love once, just a little too late,

For she was too restless, and she couldn’t wait

It wasn’t the love between women and men

No, this was much purer — the love of best friends

But she disappeared inside Death’s steely grasp

And that’s when I learnt that love never lasts

She leapt inside so willingly that I’d no time to fear the end

She leapt inside, and thus she died, my one and only friend

I watched the flames consume her there, helpless and afraid

I tried my best, did what I could, but she couldn’t be saved

And that was how I came to be all alone, in the end

My heart got torn to pieces when all I wanted was a friend

And I will never know her love at all, for she’s too far away

Just when I learnt what friends were for, she stole herself away

Mine

It was dark outside by the time I left the hospital. Sticky humidity hit me just as the doors opened, and I embraced the remnants of the long, hot summer’s day that I had wasted away bathed in fluorescent lights and clouds of bleach. I took a deep breath in, inhaling the scent of rows of wilted flowers, acrid gasoline, and the cigarette smoke of a few late-night stragglers. Somewhere far away, a car horn beeped, and a set of wheels skidded to a stop.

A typical Thursday night in late June.

The ache in my muscles was familiar; this was my fourth eighteen-hour shift in two weeks, and I hadn’t had a weekend off in three. I rolled my neck, trying to stretch the stiffness away — and make her voice a distant memory.

“Oh, my God. You’re so stupid. You’ve got to be the stupidest student to ever step foot in this hospital. Who let you into medical school? You’re an idiot, plain and simple.”

I try to keep walking, but her voice grows louder with each step. Soon, other voices join, creating a jumbled cacophony.

“I’m warning you now, if this patient dies while you’re on my floor, I’m blaming you”

“You’re not here to learn. You’re here to make my life easier. Now where’s my coffee?”

“But I needed you here. I don’t care what I said.  You should do what I need, not what I said.”

“Why are you such an idiot?” “How can anyone be such an idiot?” “Are you really this big an idiot?”

Idiot.

Idiot.

Idiot.

I pause on the pavement, massaging my temples. The voices fade slightly, but they are still there. They are always there, even when I’m not listening, even when I’m distracted. They’re with me with every step I take, with every patient I speak to, with every note I leave my mother on the kitchen fridge. I’m not good enough. I’m a fluke. A mistake. I’ll never be a good doctor. I’ll never make a difference in anyone’s life — at least, not a good difference. It never occurs to me not to believe the voices. These are my teachers, people I am supposed to respect and admire. People I am supposed to model my professional identity after.

And yet, through the darkness, I hear another voice.

“Don’t yell at my student. She’s new. It’s her first day.”

This, oddly enough, is a happy memory, and I smile. There is a certain pride in a medical student’s heart which swells upon being identified as someone’s medical student. It gives us a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, during a period of time where we’re passed from hospital to hospital, from doctor to doctor (most of whom would far rather jump into an icy river than deal with a tonne-of-bricks med student). We’re uprooted as soon as we become comfortable in a place. There’s nothing, of course, to be done about it; it’s the nature of the training. No one needs to teach an expert, and, if we’re expert enough to pass the first level of board exams, then it’s time to move on. There’s so much to learn, and so little time. But it means that we’re always spectators, never belonging, never really welcome. We’re in the way. We ask questions at the wrong time. We slow things down. We step on toes. We complain.

Can you blame a physician for being hesitant to take a student?

 

I often wondered, as recently as a few months ago, how doctors could lose their compassion. Their empathy. No one is born weary, and it would be nearly impossible to get into (or through!) med school without showing compassion. Indeed, look at any group of first-year medical students. They are bright, friendly, happy, starry-eyed and bushy-tailed. What celestial force could transform them into the nightmare physicians of the future?

I know, now. I have felt it first-hand. I have been yelled at, degraded, debased so many times that it no longer affects me. At least, not that I would admit to someone, not face-to-face. And I am not the only one. I know how to comfort my friends, how hard to squeeze their shoulders, how long to let them hold in their tears before I pass them a tissue box. I know how many times you’ll fall before you don’t notice yourself tripping. I know how it feels to become jaded. These are not things we learn in classrooms. These are things we learn as the empathy is squeezed out of us, just as we will squeeze the empathy out of our students when their turn comes around. No one is born wicked. Just as no one is born a doctor.

 

I reach the edge of the pavement. One day, I will be a doctor. Will I, too, fill my days with snide comments and sarcastic retorts? Or will I be more open, yelling and swearing openly at those who incur my wrath? Perhaps I will be kind at times, and shock those around me with my uncharacteristic outbursts. Or maybe, just maybe, I will remember what it is like to be a student. And I will understand. And I will tell students that they are “mine”, comfort them, teach them, and encourage them.

How strange that would be, to encourage students! To make them feel welcome, to give them purpose and comfort. Perhaps it is idealistic to think such a teacher could exist in the chaotic world of medicine, where time is life and one second can change everything.

But I’ve seen it happen. Rarely, but it happens.

Do you think it could happen to me?

run the world

i’d run the world, if it didn’t run me

but i’m just a speck, too tiny to see

the world runs me down like dust on the road

i splatter all over, my story untold

but, really, who’d tell it? i’m just another girl

no footprints to leave a mark on the world

i live without a story, no purpose, no plan

since the world runs me, i’ll never learn who i am