Once upon a time, before I gave up my old life for this new one, I was a doctor-in-training. I had always wanted to be one; I had dreamt of it since I was three. My entire life was a series of well-planned steps that were supposed to lead to a singular destination. And then, just then, life dealt me a totally different hand of cards.
I have written many times about this change in direction, and truthfully, this would have served the purpose of writing about “being at a crossroads” at any given time. Yet before I plunged with eyes closed in this last leap of faith, I remember the very first time I stood before one.
The following piece was written by the nineteen-year-old medical student I was many, many, many years ago. It was my first exposure to a real hospital for an assignment in a subject called Perspectives in Medicine. I’ve left it as I’ve written it then, complete with its rough spots, so you could see a glimpse of the young person I was ages ago. This was the moment that truly humanized medicine for me.
Her name was Margarita.
I remember because she wanted me to call her Nanay (Mother) and I could not.
She was 67 years old, a woman who had lived all 67 years in the hinterlands of Nueva Ecija. A farmer by profession, Margarita had toiled the soil for an entire lifetime. Her hands were strong, she claimed, and her back as sturdy as the trees she had back home. Nine children were borne of her slim frame and she had supported all through various professions with her hands.
I met Margarita at the Cancer Ward of the old Philippine General Hospital, a ward that was then as dreadful as its name. I was a freshman, given to fears and starts, as with an active imagination. As soon as I stepped into the dark gloomy recesses of the old rundown building in Padre Faura, I sensed a wrongness in it. A split-second feeling of panic rippled through me and I could not go on. However, I steeled myself against this tide of apprehension. Fear or no fear, it was an assignment I very well could not leave half done.
I noticed people milling around the lobby, shuffling as if dazed and disoriented. They would shuffle and pause, shuffle and pause. They looked at me with curious stares but I looked at the floor as I made my way. I could not bear to look at their eyes and see their humanity. It was the very first time in my life I had seen so many people without hope. I became afraid.
I saw the patient alone in her room in the charity wards. She was sleeping with her back turned to me. “Ah, this it, I will have to return some other time,” I whispered softly to myself. But no sooner had I finished than a matronly nurse shoved me aside and tapped the patient to wakefulness.
“This is Margarita,” the nurse beamed at me through gritted teeth.
This is how I met Margarita.
Oh, Margarita with the laughing eyes, why do you come to me?
I stood at the door for what seemed to be ages. She beckoned me to her side. Then she pulled me as a mother does with her small child. I remember flinching, all the while thinking how so much life was wasted on her decrepit, half-wasted body. For indeed she was just that. Emaciated. Wasted.
Life has been good to her, she said. All her children were grown and independent- what more could she ask for? In the same breath, she told me they never come anymore. They came at first, and then no more. But she was not one to pine, she said, and so she lets them be.
She pulled me closer. I was reluctant and I struggled against her arms. The closer I got to her, the stronger her scent seemed to me. I was a strange odor, a mixture of death and decay. To this day, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that smell. I squirmed shamefully against her. And then I looked into her eyes, suddenly afraid, but what I saw surprised me. There was life in those eyes! Later I would refer to them as laughing eyes, for they really were laughing.
Without warning, the spell broke, and her eyes clouded. I could smell death again.
She burst into tears.
She was not afraid to live but she was afraid to die. Death was more frightening than life because she could not fight it as she had done all the challenges hurled at her by life. Just then, she made a motion to open her blouse. I wonder now why I did not make a move to stop her. I was not a doctor; I was a student pretending to be one. I only wanted to talk to her, not examine her.
She tore at the bandages swaddled over her chest. And then I saw her secret. She had no chest- only a gaping hole where her breasts should be.
For an instant, I was filled with revulsion. It looked like minced meat. Red, swollen, with pus oozing at the sides- I could not help but think of McDonald’s and their patties. And then, once remorseful, I realized I was not looking at meat, but at a person, a human being. She did not have any breasts anymore. What she had as a suppurating ulcer, a festering wound that tore at her flesh.
I remembered. These were her breasts, the breasts she used to nurture all nine of her children. These were the source of their lives, of their nourishment.
Now, they were gone. As her children had gone.
What did I feel then, you ask? Guilt? Pity? Fear? Revulsion? I wanted so much to shout and protest at life! How could life be so cruel? Where were the doctors who vowed to help?
I held my breath, swallowed my pain, and looked at her straight in the eyes. The smell was almost gone. She had covered herself again. Her tears were gone too, dried in a small yellow towel she gripped. I held her hand tight this time, afraid to let her go. I cried for her then, and she comforted me.
Deep inside, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to be a doctor, I was going to save lives, and I was going to start at that moment.
I talked to her again, and called her “Nanay.”
I came again the next week but she was gone.
Her name was Margarita, remember.
She was 67 years old, as she will always be, for all eternity. She died the next week.
Now, when I think of her, late at night, I remember what she told me. “You’re going to be a good doctor.” And I believe.
I am submitting this post to Dr. Clairebear’s theme of “At A Crossroads” for The Blog Rounds. Just a backgrounder to those who will be reading about The Blog Rounds for the first time in this site, TBR is a medical blog carnival started by Doc Remo of The Orthopedic Logbook. It is a wonderful idea, and if you have time, I enjoin all of you to bloghop across the pages of these proudly Filipino physicians. You can check them out at Dr. Clairebear’s site or Doc Remo’s or Pinay Megamom’s.
I’ve never joined a group before, and even this post is an exception, as I write this on the invitation of a friend, Megamom. If I am hesitant to make myself known to the good people of TBR, it because my life is so far removed from the realm of medicine today. To reiterate what I wrote to Megamom a few weeks back : “I am very proud of all our Pinoy MDs and even prouder to have ran even just a short leg of the race with so many fine physicians like yourself, but I am most proud to be just who I am today: wife, mother, teacher, autism advocate, and hello kitty fanatic- in that order. ”
Thank you, Dr. Clairebear, for this very touching theme. A trek down memory lane was just what my soul needed at this moment. Blessings to you always!