Monday, December 26, 2011

Reading my dad's thoughts and other reflections on my first semester of medical school

There are many questions I wish I could have asked my dad. I was 11 when he died from complications arising from a car accident. One of those questions would have been why he chose to specialize on the kidney (he was a kidney transplant surgeon). Yes, I want to know the answer to this question because, let’s face it, there are sexier organs: the brain is quite the celebrity and the heart always gets some love, which is of course appropriate. Then there are the neglected children (I’m looking at you, spleen) So, what was it about the kidney?

I don’t expect to fully answer this question now. We only had a brief two-week introduction to the kidney, but here is an early thought:

The kidney is an elegant filter, keeping what we need and rejecting what we don’t. It has fine sensors and detectors to keep us in balance. The kidney may not always get a lot of attention, but when these guys don’t work, you will soon appreciate how crucial they are. Perhaps, it was the metaphorical appeal of “balance.” If there was one thing my dad seemed to understand it was balance. He was an incredibly busy doctor, yet found a way to be there for us at key moments (one of my favorite memories was how he made it in time from the hospital to the pet store across town to pick up a hamster for me when it was ten minutes to closing). When we return to the kidney, I will investigate this appeal further and try and trace his thoughts . . .

And just like that, my first semester is over! It’s been an intense, sometimes stressful, but ultimately rewarding four and half months. Medicine, I have discovered, is a contact sport that challenges every sense. The images of radiology test your eyes; anatomy, your touch; physiology, your intellect; physical examination, all of these and the delicate act of listening. And then of course, the art of medicine interweaves all this. Studying the human body this intimately has made me more conscious of mortality. It is a little unsettling to discover that in spite of excellent health and health behavior, the body begins to wind down anyway, and earlier than we might think. The heart beats more weakly, the vessels lose elasticity, the kidney filters less effectively, and all the reactions that produce energy on a daily basis also inflict wear and tear on our body. And that’s just a few examples! I suppose that could be depressing. And yet, the functioning and structure of the human body as a whole is so impressive, that the mere fact that we are alive is extraordinary. Our time here though is indeed finite. As Shakespeare put it in “As You Like It”:

All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances.

Confronting my mortality is daunting, and yet if medicine makes me recognize more sharply the temporal nature of my time on earth and provokes me to not take this opportunity for granted, then this confrontation is worth it.

I now have an “intermission” for the Christmas break, then I retake my seat, the instruments tune up, the lights dim . . . Act Two.

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