By Nupur Gulati
Her room was dark, illuminated only by the TV which was on, and a small gap in the blinds where a weak ray of sunlight cautiously pushed through. She was lying in her bed, her head tilted to one side, asleep. She was the only Hindi-speaking Hindu patient in hospice, so of course I had been roped into visiting her.
I felt stupid at the thought of standing there reciting a prayer in Sanskrit, a prayer I had been forced to recite many times by my parents, one I admittedly would rarely recite of my own volition. But standing there in the dark, the hospital pastor by my side, I found my lips start moving and the ancient language of my people pour out of my mouth. I was surprised at how easily the words came out, how they filled the room with a serene reverberance.
I currently worry about things like my grades, the details that go into each day of being on a team that makes a clinic run, whether or not each I is dotted and each T crossed of research and projects I undertake. In other words, I worry about things that concern me and only me almost 100% of the time.
As medical students, we are expected to straddle the delicate fence between ruthlessness and compassion. We must be ruthless with ourselves if we are to survive this process – the long nights, the constant hard work, the never-ending slew of emails that flood our inboxes seemingly dictating our lives. But we are also expected to care, and not just in the “I like helping people” way that many of us articulate it, but care in deepest sense of our beings. After all, we will be spending our lives caring for other people… curing sometimes, healing often, and comforting always.
As I was standing in her room in the dark ‘praying’ for this person who I didn’t know, who didn’t know me, who I thought would probably dislike having a stranger in her room while she slept, she opened her eyes. She looked right at me, and the pastor pushed me (quite literally) closer to her bedside. The prayer was over at this point, and confused, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I started talking to her in Hindi while she just looked at me. I told her things like we were here to pray for her and help her feel better and that she wasn’t alone and that God would protect her. I could not tell if she understood me, but her eyes became wider, and something in them felt like it understood and it appreciated and it in some way, was comforted.
To us students, that the path of medicine seems daunting may be the biggest understatement in the history of medicine. Many of us come for the science and stay for the people. After all, you have to give at least somewhat of a damn about your fellow humans if you plan to spend four expensive years in school followed by four hard years of cheap labor in residency followed by a lifetime of learning and growing in a dynamic and unpredictable environment.
Many older, wiser people than me in medicine have told me “it’s the people that make it worth it.” I suppose I believed that, but I did not actually understand what that meant till I found myself in her room. All she did was look at me, and I found myself closer to her, to God, and to myself.
As a doctor, I will be no God. I will be able to ease suffering and cure sometimes, but not change the course of a patient’s destiny, whatever that may be. Perhaps my role as a doctor then will be then to be a vessel, one who tries to carry the things her patients need and who ruthlessly accepts the outcome of their health in a manner free from judgment and full of compassion.
And at the end of this life, when I am alone in a dark room, waiting to meet my maker, I hope there will be someone who enters, even if for a moment, with the intention to bring a little light. I suppose that is all anyone can really ever hope for.