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My First Patient

Story: Chapter 1

Part 1 of speech given at residency graduation. Organization and phrasing reflects oral presentation.

In medical school, we often refer to our first year anatomy class cadaver as our first patient. I knew my first patient long before medical school, though, and she is very much alive.

This story begins in Seattle, in 1987, in a sixth-floor apartment four blocks from Pike Place Market. In that apartment, my dad read To Kill a Mockingbird to my mom in the late stages of her pregnancy with me.

According to my embryology textbook, my entire auditory system was fully functional in the seventh month in utero, so this must have been the first story I ever heard, although technically, I didn’t have the language or processing skills to understand it.

After Seattle, my parents read books to my siblings and I in the Northeast, then the Southwest, and finally back in the Northwest. My dad would sit in a rocking chair in the hall between the bedroom doors and read aloud every night. As we got older, we’d beg for one more chapter and once we got my mom to finish the last chapter at 1 o’clock AM!

My mom is the lady in the audience who looks exactly like me but with brown eyes and silver hair. When I was young, she had an undiagnosed bleeding disorder with episodes of horrifically low platelets. Our exuberant black labrador would leave purple welts on her legs like she’d been hit with a golf club instead of his tail.

She had to give herself twice-daily heparin injections while she was pregnant with my younger brother. At the time, I was six years old, and equal parts worried about her and fascinated by her disease. I wanted to help take care of her and give her the shots so she wouldn’t have to do it herself. And she generously – crazily? – taught me how to give them.

Only years later did I realize that she needed no assistance from a six-year-old, but she let me help anyway. At eight, I promised myself that I would find a cure for her. Someone else beat me to it, for which I am grateful, because she has been in remission for 14 years.

But I was six, when my mamma was my first patient and I first realized I wanted to be a doctor. That’s a debt I can’t repay. Thank you, Mamma.

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” – G. K. Chesterton

About the Author

Single With Scalpel is a Pediatric Otolaryngology fellow who tweets about life, humor, and medical education. She blogs here when 140 characters simply aren’t enough.

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