This is the last post from HPMFellow as a Hospice and Palliative Medicine Fellow. I’m proud to now call her a colleague and I look forward to working with her in the field. I hope she will continue to share her experiences, thoughts and insights. Thank you HPMFellow and good luck!
I graduate “24th grade” tomorrow.
I’d like to use this reflection to come to terms with the “end” of my formal professional training – more specifically the most recent part. This past year as a palliative medicine fellow, and the past several years as a mother have done a great deal for my personal growth. My daughter and my patients have taught me – simply by living the first and last days of their lives – that without an element of change to every day time tends to stand still. I’ve learned that the passage of time and the preciousness of life is truly something worth celebrating.
I used to call my daughter my personal barometer for professional growth as we both started medical residency together – she a rent-free occupant of my uterus, and me a nine-months pregnant deer-in-headlights intern. She was a helpless infant when I took my first overnight call in the hospital. She started talking (and hasn’t stopped,) about the time I started teaching other residents. She learned to walk about the same time I placed my first central line unsupervised. And when I started my palliative medicine fellowship she started throwing tantrums. I began to notice how very similar she was to some of my patients and their families. The similarities didn’t stop at the tantrums thrown in resistance to change, but also in the wonder of life that comes with youth and being forced to slow down.
A month ago my daughter began to learn what death means. She had used the word before, but usually in respect to a character in a movie, or great-grandparents she hadn’t had the opportunity to meet. But last month our beloved dog died. When we came home from the vet, my husband and I struggled to find the words to explain something so permanent, and how to ease the acceptance of a change so big in her life.
We decided to tell her “Zoe” had turned into a star. Not a lie in our minds – she was physically now reduced to a lifeless carbon –based dust. The stuff that the late astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, often referred to as “starstuff.” This idea resonates strongly with our beliefs, and we felt that giving our daughter a star in the sky to look up at and think of her dog would also be kind.
So we told her Zoe had died and become a star.
“Why?” her current favorite word.
“Because she was very, very sick and very old.”
“But where is she?”
I pointed to a bright star in the sky, “There.”
She looked up at the star and began to cry, “I want her to come down from there.”
“I’m so sorry sweetie. I miss her, too. But that’s where she’ll stay from now on. But she loves you, and she’s not sick anymore.”
She composed herself surprisingly quickly. Then she looked back at the stars.
“When I die will I become a star?”
I wasn’t prepared for that. But she was right. My daughter is mortal, too. “Yes,” was all I could offer.
Then in true magical-thinking she decided, “When I die I want to be the moon.”
And just like that my learner became my teacher. Like I’ve learned this year to allow my daughter to teach me, I’ve allowed myself growth from my patients. In general I’ve found that those closer to the hour of their life’s end often have significant lessons to share if those around them are listening and observing.
If I could again see the faces of those I’ve cared for this past year who have since returned to starstuff, I’d like to give them another heartfelt “thank-you.” For the profound appreciation of change you’ve taught me and the philosophy of whole-person medicine I hope to carry moving forward.