I am a doctor and even though I haven’t practiced for long, the burden of catering to other people’s health and wellness is beginning to weigh heavy.
Just before graduation, I came across an internet meme- a picture perfect graduation photo taken at the podium… Emblazoned across it were the words: “your days of avoiding the real world are finally over”. At the time, it was both funny and true because, while I was understandably excited and itching to get into the real world, I was also contemplating the enormity of my future responsibilities and a knot was slowly forming in my stomach.
My graduation ceremony didn’t help much. A rainy summer day (rain during a ceremony is considered good luck in certain parts of Europe, while it is generally considered ominous in most parts of Africa where I am from), a warm cozy auditorium and the smiling faces of several hundred colleagues- some of whom I knew I would never see again, combined to create a delicate backdrop against which our University Rector gave a brilliantly somber speech laden with Russian humor about the dawn of a new era of responsibility, that only served to tighten the rapidly expanding knot in my viscera.
A few minutes later, after awkwardly stumbling through the Hippocratic oath in Latin (or was that Greek?) and essentially becoming a doctor, I cast aside all sober reflections and lost myself in the glee of effusive celebrations. Somewhere deep within me though, I wrestled with the significance of the double omen- the rainy graduation (ambivalent in the sense of diametrically opposite conotations in the two cultures into which I was inextricably immersed) and wondered if this noble career ahead of me was a blessing or a curse or both.
Despite my conscious amnesia, from time to time, the thoughts of just how grave my newfound responsibilities are, filter into my head and I can’t help but shudder at the sheer enormity.
When I returned home, I had the good fortune of a gentle transition from medical student to medical doctor and hence for the most part, those thoughts were kept at bay. I had gone to the capital to register for the Medical Council licensing exams, which are usually preceded by a 4 month remedial course to acquaint or rather reacquaint us FTDs- foreign trained doctors with practice in resource poor settings. There was even a fancy term for it- “Medicine in the Tropics”. When I got to the council, I was unable to register for the exams because registration had stopped, never mind that according to their website, registration was on for another 3 weeks at least. Despite my insistence, the refusal was vehement and I had to turn tail eventually.
Since I couldn’t take the exams with that stream, I had to find something to keep me busy (and sane) for the 3 months or so remaining of the program. I applied to volunteer at a hospital there in the capital and got into the weird and wonderful world of medical practice. Since then, I have worked my way, slowly steadily upwards from volunteer, to trainee expatriate and now to a junior doctor in a private practice somewhere in South Eastern Nigeria.
No transition however, no matter how gentle, could have prepared me for the jarring experience that is death. Although there was some death involved in the course of our training, one couldn’t help but turn those people into statistical tallies. They were not your patients, you had not held their hands, laughed with them, listened as they told you their life stories, their loftiest dreams, their deepest regrets. You did not really know those people. I am as unprepared today as I was in medical school to deal with matters arising, whenever death is involved.
Sure, there is an algorithm for breaking bad news to patients and their relatives, but believe me, when death happens, those words, that schematic plan in your head just disappears when you come face to face with the tired and tearful eyes of a daughter, a mother, a sister, the frightened eyes of a son, a brother, a father, struggling to hold on to some semblance of bravery in the face of something so crushing, so gut wrenching, that it literally sucks the air right out of your nostrils.
And when I stand- strong, steely, practical, excavating the elusive words with practiced empathy, I desperately hope that somehow I project an image of a tower of strength, a stable structure in their rapidly crumbling world. But I also know that if only they could see inside, truly see inside of me, they would see that I am crumbling too, flailing, latching on to swimming straws.
But then, I don’t know what they see.