by Lanerica Rogers
My Dad's phone could never hold a charge, but that never came to mind as he was whisked away to the emergency room without being able to tell us goodbye. We wouldn't hear from him again until a few hours later when he would call us from the hospital to tell us that he tested positive for COVID-19. I was devastated. He had not been feeling well for the last few days, but we thought he'd overexerted himself from washing his car. After all, he was already suffering from COPD and required a constant oxygen supply. When his pulmonologist suggested he go to the ER, I still did not believe that the culprit was COVID-19. My Dad barely left the house: where could he have contracted it? I was 90% sure it was sepsis again as all the symptoms were very similar. I was wrong. My Dad had the dreaded virus that was tearing the nation apart. I immediately began to question if I had given it to him. I had no symptoms, but I had traveled to South America not long before this all happened.
When we spoke to him about his diagnosis, he asked my Mom to bring his phone charger to him when she got a chance; the next morning, she drove to the hospital to give it to him. My Dad had called her earlier that morning from the hospital to check in, but she missed the call and was not able to get a hold of him again. When my Mom arrived, the ER receptionist told her to wait while she went to get the nurse practitioner caring for my Dad. My Mom called me so I could listen to their conversation. “He won't be needing that” were the words I heard as I picked up the phone.
My heart began to pound as I listened to the nurse explain that my Dad was placed on a ventilator earlier that morning and would not be needing the charger for his phone at this time. I listened to her explain to my Mom what being on a ventilator meant, but I was fixated on the words “He won't be needing that.” Those words made me feel like I would never speak to my Dad again or hear his voice. In the voicemail he left on my Mom's phone earlier that morning, he'd made no mention of being placed on a ventilator although he knew he was about to be placed on one. Maybe he did not want us to worry or maybe he was scared. I was certainly scared.
I was thinking about how it would be impossible for me to finish my first year of medical school if I lost my Dad because there was no way I would make it without him. I replayed the last conversation we had over and over, and remembered how I felt like something was off but I had not said anything. I was too focused on preparing for my next exam and rushing to get off of the phone so I wouldn't lose even a minute more of studying.
My Dad was on a ventilator for 9 days. My Mom and I called the hospital twice a day to get updates, and I was responsible for explaining all of the medical jargon to my Mom so she could also understand what was going on. Medical school had become a distraction. It distracted me from the very real worry of possibly losing my Dad. On day 9 of being in the ICU, my Dad was taken off of the ventilator and, on day 14, he was able to come home. It was honestly a miracle and even the nurses agreed. The day my Dad was taken off of the ventilator, the nurse explained to us over the phone how they had lost six patients to COVID-19 the night before. That made me even more grateful to hear my Dad's voice when the ventilator was removed, even if at first he sounded like a robot.
Although this was one of the scariest times in my life, this time allowed me to reflect on a few things. I started to think more about the sacrifices I had made thus far in medical school. I was only a first-year and I had already missed family gatherings, baby showers, and birthdays. I neglected my friends and many of the things that I loved outside of medicine. I no longer made time for leisurely reading, painting, or even exercise. I knew that I would have to make some level of sacrifice, but at that moment when my Dad was clutching for his life, many of the sacrifices did not seem to be worth it. Was spending an extra couple of hours learning about bacteria worth missing quality time with my parents? Did the extra studying help me to get a better grade? Maybe. Of course, there are times where you have to miss an event, but I believe that it should be okay to say no to medicine sometimes. It is important to start building your work–life balance practices in medical school. A balance is needed between school and those things that are important to you because medical training is a marathon, not a sprint.
So, as a rising second-year medical student, my advice to incoming first-years is to say yes to going to that party. Say yes to the camping trip. Say yes to going to the family reunion. Say yes and then figure out how to work studying around it. You will probably have to revisit the differences between ataxia, chorea, and dystonia many times in your medical training, but you never know when spending time with someone you love could be the last time you get to do so. Saying yes to the things you enjoy will make you a better student, friend, daughter, or son, and, eventually, a better doctor.
Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Georgia Campus
Graduating Class of 2023