Just a Matter of Pride & Vanity

So, on Friday night, I found myself in my wardrobe, amidst clothes flung on the floor, jewellery spreaded out on my dressing table, shoes strewn along the carpet, and a very frazzled looking, insecure woman staring back at me in the mirror. The dress I held in front of myself flew out of my hand onto the floor in an exasperated sign. Another one bites the dust. I tried chanelling Angelina Jolie…..

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I  looked up at the reflection. Messy, frizzled hair cascading around my bare face devoid of makeup, loose pyjama top stained with food remanents, tracksuit pants that are two sizes too big, and peeling red nail polish on my toes. I looked closer. Damn, is that my gray hair peeking through my last hair colour 8 weeks ago? Brown eyes are so boring, maybe I should get eyelash extensions to enhance my eyes. I made a pout – my lips are so thin, it’s hardly worth the effort of putting on lipstick. When did those lines started to become so prominent around my eyes and forehead. Hubby is right, I really frown too much, maybe I should start giving myself some Botox……

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It hit me then. Oh God. I have become one of them.

Them – being my cosmetic patients. The ones that sit in my office, telling me over 45 minutes about the extra fat bulges that shouldn’t be sitting on heir hips, the breasts that are too small for their designer dresses, the waistline that is not well-defined enough like a washboard, the fine wrinkles that give their age away, the flat cheekbones that makes their nose look big, the turkey neck that makes them look old, the receding chin that lacks character etc etc etc. Usually by the end of the consultation, my eyes have rolled to the back of my head, listening to their lists of imperfections. Sometimes I am tempted to whip out my ipad and show them pictures of women whom I have had to remove facial and body parts for cancer, just so that they can appreciate what God has given them.  Sometimes I work really hard at being patient and sympathetic. Because after all, I am a plastic surgeon. Making people as beautiful as they want to be is my job. Although I have to admit, the biggest frustration of my job is that sometimes my definition and their concept of being ‘beautiful’ can be two vastfuly different things.

So I digress.

What has put me in this state?

Earlier this month, I received a message via facebook from Georgina. She was coming for a conference. She was dying to catch up because she hadn’t seen me for years. She just got married last year to the hottest guy and would love me to meet him.

She hadn’t seen me for 12 years to be exact.

Georgina and I have known each other since first year of high school. We were family friends. Our mothers car-pooled. My mother took us to school and her mother (Mrs S) took us home. We went to the same private girls’ school, lived two streets away from each other, had the same piano teacher, attended the same ballet school, she was a swimmer and I was a rower, so we trained at the same time. When we grew up, we went through medical school together. She is now a specialist working in another state.

Georgina was from a very wealthy family, I was a scholarship girl in a private school. Her father was a medical specialist and Mrs S was a housewife who lunched at the local country club. My parents were migrants who owned and worked in a small mortgaged coffee shop. Our house was old and falling apart around us, my father was forever ‘self-renovating’ it. They lived in an elegant white mansion, with an automatic gate, french window seats, custom-made silk and brocad curtains, a dining room that fitted a long shiny mahogany table which sat 20 guests…. you get the picture. Mrs S used to pick us up from school in her shiny BMW, with fresh Happy Meal boxes from MacDonald’s for us to eat, then we’d go to her house until my parents were home from work. Georgina and I would play dress up in her room, muck around on the piano, swim in her big pool and hang around the cook in the massive kitchen for scraps from whatever feast she was cooking the family for dinner.

Georgina had the biggest wardrobe I had ever seen, and every few weeks, she would give me clothes that she didn’t want anymore. She was bigger than me, so most of the time, my mother had to take in the sides and lengh.  She taught me how to put on makeup and paint my nails. She coached me how to walk in high heels. She educated me in the difference between Chanel and Gucci. She showed me the colours of Louboutin Red and Tiffany Blue.  I was always in awe of her and her family. I thought I was so lucky to have her as my friend. She was a popular, confident girl who excelled in everything, and held different official positions throughout high school. She always changed into one of her beautiful designer outfits when we went out after school.  She was allowed to wear high heels when she was 15. Handsome looking senior guys from the private boys’ school next door used to hang around her. She got asked to the prom every year of high school. I was a typical nerd. I had braces for three and half years. I wore uniforms that were too big for me (because mum couldn’t afford to buy a new one each time I grew). Although I did well in my core-curriculum and music, I was bad at sports, clumsy and awkard. I was constantly in flannel shirts, jeans and scruffy sneakers when I wasn’t in my uniform (legacy of my older brother’s wardrobe). I was shy around boys, and never went to a prom, except mine. I took my older brother.

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Looking back, I can’t say we were really friends. I desperately believed that we were friends, even though we never spoke to each other at school. But when we were at her house, we spoke about everything, from our favourite movies, difficult equations in maths, places we’d like to travel to and our fairytale weddings. I guess we were friends by default. Two very different young girls thrown together by circumstance. We spent everyday together through our teenage years and early twenties. Her house was the only place I was allowed to go to without parental supervision on weekends. The parties I was permitted to attend were those she was invited to. We hung around the same crowd when we were older, our brothers were best friends, so it was unavoidable that we were always in each other’s presence.

Then little incidents started to fall in place for me. There were several, but a few stood out.

Once when I was bored of playing cricket with my younger brother, to escape his pestering, I walked over to her house on a Saturday afternoon. I pressed the bell at the gate. Mrs S answered. I told her it was me and if I could come over and and play with Georgina. She said of course and called for Georgina. I don’t think Mrs S realised that the intercom was still on, because the next thing I heard was Georgina’s whining voice. ‘Is she here again? Mum, she’s so annoying, do I have to play with her? Can’t you just tell her I am not home?’

‘Hush Georgie, be nice to Tiffany. She is a very good girl and you have a lot to learn from her.’

‘She’s such a dag. Mum.’

‘Go and let her in.’

I hesitated. I wanted to leave, but I managed to convince myself that she didn’t really mean it – because if she did, she wouldn’t have let me in. So since that day, I tried really hard not to be ‘annoying’.

When I went to my prom, I didn’t have a dress. Mrs S offered to my mother that I could borrow one of Georgina’s many prom dresses. I was at their house, trying on different dresses, most of which were too big as Georgina was a swimmer and had much wider torso than myself. Mrs S then brought out a dress from her wardrobe. She said it was her prom dress when she was a girl (and when she was a lot slimmer). It was a long beautiful tight shimmering number. It fitted me perfectly. Georgina said that I looked old in it. I thought she was just jealous that I could wear her mother’s dress. Days before the prom night, she told everyone at school that I was wearing one of her mother’s old dresses and that I looked like I had no boobs with a fat tummy in such a tight dress. I went home and cried, I told my mother that I didn’t want to wear Mrs S’s dress. She made me wear it on the night. I spent the whole night sitting in the corner, with my brother’s black Parka jacket over Mrs S’s dress.

When we were at uni, my boyfriend (now husband), M, was in her group. I remember thinking that she was my ‘closest friend’ (plus she was also one of M’s friends), so I should let her know that M and I had started dating. She shrugged with disinterest when I told her. She was more eager to tell me about how several male doctors at the university hospital had been asking her out. Two days later, M asked me if i ever had braces. I said yes and asked him why. He said that Georgina told him about my braces and how I used to look hilarious when food got stuck in it. I asked him what else did he and Georgina talk about, and he started telling me some pretty embarrasing things I used to do at school. I got angry and said that Georgina was trying to make me look bad. He just laughed and said that I was over-reacting. He thought the stories were adorable.

Finally, the last time I saw her, we were sitting exams to apply for specialist training. I was studying in the library, in a cubicle desk next to the meeting room. The meeting room is often booked out by study groups. I preferred to study alone. The walls were very thin, I could hear the conversation in the room. Georgina’s voice stood out. One of the girls was admiring her shirt. Georgina said that she got it from an exclusive boutique in the city. The girl mentioned that I worked there on weekends. Georgina laughed, ‘isn’t it ridiculous how long Tiffany has worked there?! You’d think her dress sense would improve for the better.’ When I bumped into her leaving the library later that day, I said goodbye. Then I quit my job at L’Amour Boudoir a week later.

Now I asked my reflection in the mirror. Why the hell did you say yes to this dinner.

Maybe I wanted to give Georgina the benefit of the doubt? Maybe she has changed and matured. She did probably consider me as a friend and has missed having me around to talk to. She sounded genuinely interested in finding out about my life. She really wasn’t such bad person, she had her own insecurities and fears. I’d like to think she was jealous of me, but that would have just been plain silly, because I envied her and she knew that I wanted to be just like her.

Or maybe because I wanted to show her how far I have come in life, that I now live in the same sphere of professional stature and wealth as her family. But why would I care what she thinks of me now? Why did I have the need to show her that I was the same or maybe even better than she is? I wanted to show her that I am now more worldly, and have developed my own sense of style. Looking at my reflection in the mirror – there was no evidence of any of the above. The little insecure teenager in me had been brought to the surface by Georgina’s visit.

Thus my indecisiveness in ‘what to wear’. This was so unlike me. I am used to making a split second decisions on a bleeding internal jugular vein, a prompt judgement on managing severed fingers, not to mention accurate assessment on resectability of complex cancers. And now, I found myself stuck in front of the mirror, dithering over one black dress over another (honestly, they all look the same), and worrying about a few lines on my face. I sighed and threw my hands up in the air.

Then a voice downstairs brought me back down to earth. ‘Hey, beautiful, have you finished dolling yourself up yet? We are going to be late.’ I can see him, sitting on the sofa, flickering through Star Trek episodes on the remote, in his blue-striped shirt to match his eyes, navy linen blazer fom Zegna, crossed legs covered in tailored Armani pants and suede loafers courtesy of Bally. Half an hour ago, I was sitting on that sofa, exactly as I was and he as he was, snuggled up in his lap while he was talking about his day. Then I saw in the mirror what he would have seen.

One thing I have learnt from working in the field of plastic surgery for over 10 years is, the clients that feel truly beautiful, are those that already did before surgery. All I do for them is to enhance the parts which they wanted improvement.

So I berated the bedraggled image in the mirror. You are a well-respected plastic surgeon. You are fit, toned and have a perfect Body Mass Index of 23. You look good for your age, and that’s without Botox. Your husband can’t keep his hands off you because you are gorgeous. He spoils you with classy jewellery. You can afford expensively tailored designer clothes and shoes. You have everything at your fingertips to make yourself one damn stunning hottie.

By the time I had my hair piled up over the gray roots, Chanel make -up applied over the fine lines, Helmut Lang black dress zipped up, Louboutin pumps hiding my neglected toes, Tiffany diamonds in place, and a shimmering Louis Vuitton clutch in my hand, I felt like the envy of all women.  And men. For all my self-righteous tirade on Vanity, I have had to admit to myself that a healthy dose of it does wonders for one’s self-esteem.

Because when I walked into the restaurant that night, it didn’t matter what Georgina and her hunky husband thought, I felt like a million dollars, like Angelie Jolie in The Tourist.

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With my very own Brad Pitt.

 

 

 

‘Doctor’ is my Job. Not who I am.

I hate travelling alone. Somehow or rather, I always end up having a conversation with whoever sits next to me. I don’t mind the conversation, but sooner or later, the ‘oh-so-casually-asked’ question comes up: ‘So, what do you do for a living?’

I always hesitate. I always consider lying about what I do. I just don’t want to say I am a doctor.

It took me a while figure out why. Apart from the fact that once people find out they are talking to a doctor, they lose all interest in talking about anything else. Anything else but every medical condition or surgery they have ever had. Then they move onto each of their family members and friends. In between, they give you their five cents’ worth of why they knew better than the doctor, and how Dr Google was so helpful. By the end of the flight, they would be asking for a free in-flight consultation as to what my opinion was in regards to dear old departed Grandpa’s gouty big toe.

I get that. I really do. I find myself doing the same when I talk to people in certain jobs. When I first met my friend who is an airline pilot, I told him about all my terrible flying experiences. I could literally see his eyes roll to the back of his head as I carried on. But he has no qualms in telling people he is a pilot. In fact, he loves it, because he says it is a great drawcard for chicks.

I don’t think it is a drawcard for me. You could see the interest dimmer in men’s eyes when I tell them I am a doctor, or the body language wthdraws when I mention that I cut people up for a living. Well, not exactly in those words. It is often hard to tell whether it is because they are intimidated or they are just not interested in female doctors. Of course, once they get over that fact – and they haven’t moved onto someone else with a greater one-night-stand potential – I get the low-down about their latest health problems over a beer. No Siree, there’s no flirting for the female doctor at the bar, It’s all serious talk about their latest health problems. When boys fantasize about playing doctors and nurses, I guess they just never really imagined playing the nurse.

People judge people by what they do. Assumptions are made- some are true, but majority of the time, it can be quite far off the mark. These are often based on stereotypes. So, when I tell people I am a surgeon, people usually presume that I am a smart, rich, arrogant, bossy, ball-breaking feminist. Some even assume that I am single. Interestingly, some people talk differently to me once they realised what I do for a living. It is almost insulting when people make comments like ‘You know, you are not like a typical surgeon. You are so normal and down to earth.’  Yep. I eat, drink, wee and poo like any other normal person.

But most of all, I hate telling people that I am doctor, simply because it is not who I am.

I am a surgeon, and yes it consumes my life, but it is still just a job for me. I would still be me if I was a teacher, waitress or cleaner. I would still have the same work ethic, the same standards and the same approach to my work. I don’t identify myself with what I do for a living, but rather, what I do in life.

I think it is a good thing.

It allows me to separate my personal life and work life better. In the time continuum, they do overlap. For instance, when I am out shopping for groceries, I get a phone call from work. But I don’t think of myself as a surgeon doing groceries, I identify myself with everyone else around me doing groceries, the only difference is I am getting a call about work when it’s a Sunday afternoon. When I have issues at work, I don’t bring it home to my personal life.  When I have problems at home, I deal with it like a concerned wife, not like a surgeon.

It is also good for protecting myself. When I get abused by patients, or complaints from colleagues, I find it easier to see it as a criticism of my work, and less an assault of me as a person. They don’t know me, not really, they are just angry at the doctor. This allows me to look at my work more objectively and find out what I may be able to change or improve, rather than get all upset because I feel incompetent, hurt and lose my self-confidence.

My husband likes it. He thinks that I keep the non-doctor part of myself only to those closest to me. He often chuckles when he hears me speaking on the phone to my colleagues at home. ‘You talk like you have balls.’ Not the most eloquent compliment he could bestow on his wife, but he loves the fact that as soon as I put the phone down, I revert back to the quirky chick he married. The one that snuggles up to him on the sofa and lets hm believe that she worships the ground he walks on, whilst taking a piss out of him all at the same time.

Most of all, separating my job and my identity allows me to have a life outside work. I have other interests, many of which are not exactly congruous with what I do for a living. I suppose most people think doctors play golf, sail, travel during their spare time. Me? I enjoy bashing up my Sensei and his gigantic sons during my karate training sessions (free medical care offered if I win).  Other weekends I go to the gun range and work on my not-so-perfect trap-shooting technique, in between cheese tasting with the large Italian community at my local gun club. I seriously think that I would be more comfortable calling myself a mediocre amateur trap shooter (who loves her chilli cheese), than I would a surgeon.

Discovering my identity outside my work gives me the opportunity to find out who I am, and confirms that I am not my work.  It gives me a purpose in life even if someone strips me of  my job and all the associated status it represents. It determines how I do my job.  How many times have I heard of senior colleagues continually postponing their retirement? It is because they are too afraid of retiring – they have nothing besides their work and they are at risk of losing their identity once they stop being a doctor.

I would hate to think my view is a reflection that I am not committed to my work or that I don’t love my work. In fact, I really believe that I make a better surgeon if I am also a regular human being. I hope that people don’t just see me as a ‘doctor’, but rather a kind, thoughtful, considerate, empathetic, intelligent, decisive and trust-worthy person. A person that they feel confident in as their doctor. Because that’s who I strive to be.

Back to the plane.

‘So, what do you do for a living?’

‘Oh,’ I would shrug, ‘not much. I am a lady of leisure.’ I wave my hands around elegantly like a practiced socialite. ‘but I am fairly busy,’ a sweet innocent smile thrown in here, ‘I go to lunches with my girl friends, I love a bit of shopping; I organise charity functions and I always attend my husband’s work-do’s, you know.’

Usually I get an indulgent smile. ‘Well, you lucky girl.’

I would give a very girlish giggle. ‘I know, my husband spoils me.’

The conversation takes a brief break as the air hostess wheels the coffee cart up to us. She bends over to me.

‘Dr Tiffany, can I offer you a coffee?’

Damn. Sprung.

May be there is a doctorate in home-decorating?

Smoked Salmon

It was after a very long day at work.  A complex operation that took me ten hours, standing on my feet, without a break.

I was so tired I was almost asleep by the time my car rolled to a stop in the garage.

Dinner was served to me at the table, lamb racks, fresh boccoccini, tomato and basil salad. My husband and I ate silently. I was too tired to evening lift the fork to my mouth, let alone make any intellectual conversation.

‘Is dinner ok?’ He looked at me in concern.

‘Yeah.’ was my half-hearted reply, pushing a piece of cheese around.

‘Don’t you like the salad?’ he asked, almost defensively. ‘I thought you like it, that’s why I made it.’

‘No, no, I like it.’ I said, too tired to argue. Which obviously came out pretty unconvincingly.  In actual fact, I did, and I do. It is one of the salads he makes which I love. I was just too tired.

He looked at me suspiciously.  ‘Are you just saying that or do you actual like it?

A pause, then he asked in a slow, deliberate tone, ‘Is it a smoked salmon?’

Ever since the ‘smoked salmon incident’, I have lost my husband’s trust in my ability to tell him the truth of what I like and what I don’t like.

It happened two years ago. At the time, he was working in the UK, and I was visiting him. He was working night shifts, and because he needed to take the car to work and was living quite far out of town, he made sure there was plenty of food in the fridge for me before he left for work each evening. A week down the track, he was cleaning out the fridge and noticed there were packets of smoked salmon sitting on the top shelf in the fridge.

‘Why aren’t you eating the smoked salmon? They are nearly out of date.’ he asked me. ‘I bought them for you.’

I walked over to the fridge door and looked at him in confusion, ‘but I don’t like smoked salmon.’

He looked me incredulously in return. ‘Are you telling me,’ he said in a dangerously quiet tone, ‘that after 18 years, I am just finding out that you don’t actually like smoked salmon?’ A deep breath. I could almost see the pressure increasing behind those grey eyes. ‘Why haven’t you told me before? Whenever we are at the supermarket, you just let me buy packets of salmon!’

‘Because I thought you liked it.’ And I did.

‘So what did you do with all the packets of smoked salmon we used to buy?’

‘I had to keep throwing them out because they were out of date. I was wondering why you kept buying them and not eating them.’

‘Because I was buying them for you. I thought you liked them.’ By now, I was sure the neighbours in the next apartment has their heads under their pillows.

And so there it is. Smoked Salmon. I had to tell him, after 18 years of being soul-mates, that….. I. Don’t. Like. Smoked Salmon.

The truth is. I don’t hate smoked salmon. I will eat it if Í have to, or if there’s nothing else to eat. But I don’t deliberately go look for it, or seek it out. If there was a choice on the menu, it will not be my choice.

It took me a while to realise why I have never bothered to tell him I don’t like it. It was simply because I thought he liked it. And similar to most couples (who, like us, have obviously been together for too long), I sometimes end up doing things or making decisions to please him, because what makes him happy, makes me happy, and most of the time, it wasn’t worth the effort to debate about it.

Unless it’s something I really hate. Like Golf. I drew the line at Golf. He was on his own for that one.

So when he refers to a ‘smoked salmon’, he is basically referring to his lack of trust in me to tell him the truth about my preferences. He is now constantly suspicius that I do things or make decisions to placate him. I am working on regaining that trust – which I did have for the last 18 years until that sudden moment of enlightment at the fridge door.

But most importantly, for me, a ‘smoked salmon’ is a reminder that I need to be truthful to myself, and trust that even if I don’t like what he likes, he still loves me.

The Frustrations of Caring

Sometimes I wish I didn’t care.

I remember when I was an intern, the professor of surgery once said to me, ‘the trick of lasting in this gig, kiddo, is to stop caring so much.’

I thought at the time that he was referring to caring about what other people think.Then I realised he meant caring about patients. I was outraged; absoluately convinced that he was just a cynic.

Now, I think he is actually just a realist. A very experienced one at that.

Caring about patients need to have limits. I have learnt the hard way, that if not, the patient will start pushing boundaries with their expectations, my whole existence becomes one big worry-farm, and then my personal life deterioates.

When I meet my patients for the frst time in a consultation, I take the time and effort to explain everything to them. I care about how much they understood and whether they feel reassured. During surgery, I do my best to be efficient, methodical and meticulous, because I care about the success of their surgery. While my patients are recuperating, I make sure they have all the information and instructions to follow and a contact number to call if they are concerned, because I care about decreasing their distress and anxieties while they are recovering. And at their final followup, I care, in particular, whether they are happy with the result.

This translates to worry. I worry if they have had enough time to digest the information and ask me questons. I worry if I have done my best with their procedure. I worry if they are going to develop a complication after surgery. I worry if they are having problems at home after surgery. I worry if they are dissatisfied with their result and if there is anything further I could do for them.

I worry. And it’s tiresome. But after many years, this constant caring and worrying becomes part of normal living – a bit like the constant background hum one hears in an airconditioned room. Some days the humming is louder, like when I am working over 100 hours a week and I have lost count of the number of patients I have seen. Other days, it’s like a sledgehammer, when I am dealing with problematic patients and complex surgery. Rarely does it becomes silent, even when I am asleep (yes, I do dream of operations and patients), or when I am on holidays (I still receive emails of lab results, letters etc).

Sometimes I resent it. Like when I receive a text message from a patient at 1am with a selfie of their wound or surgical site. I feel like yelling in frustration. But I constantly have to remind myself that it’s not the patient’s fault my life is like this. They are only doing the right thing – contacting me when they feel something is not right. It’s my fault. My fault because I care. I care enough to ring them back and listen to why they can’t sleep, talk about their concerns, and address their anxieties. Then I lie awake worrying. By the time my caring has finished, it is time for me to get up to start my 12-hour day again.

Sometimes my husband resents it. ‘Why do you have to go in to work on Sunday?’ Because I worry that my inpatients may have deterioated overnight, or need an increase in their painkiller prescription. I worry that they are sitting in hospital on a Sunday, feeling abandoned by their doctor (who feels too guilty to have a day off). ‘Why can’t you switch your phone off for dinner?’ Because I worry that my patients may need me and I won’t be there for them. ‘You are thinking about work again and not listening to me.’ I was worrying about what I could have done better in surgery, instead of giving the one most important person in my life the attention he deserves. I worry because I care.

Believe me. I tried. I tried to stop worrying, and erect a wall against caring. I tried to emulate some of my colleagues who has Not-Caring down to an art. But my conscience kept me awake, and my attempt lasted for all of 10 seconds. I know I don’t have to care, I just have to provide a service to my patients. I have seen very capable and successful surgeons who don’t seem to care and still have excellent results. They shrug off complications, they don’t take their patient’s problems home, and they brush off complaints at the office door. They live by the ‘Shit-Happens’ Rule. They don’t ever look worried. Either it is because they aren’t, or they have lived with it for so long, it is unrecognisable.

The problems with caring, is it’s closely associated with feelings and emotions. More and more, I have had to find the strength to put it aside. I have seen that too much caring can cloud one’s judgement, especially if I worry too much about how they might feel. Sometimes, cold clinical judgement to do the right thing, which may not be what the patient want, is the only way to make sure they have the best outcome. The hardest part is stepping away from their expectations, so that the bigger picture can be see in perspective. Thus lies the basis for not
treating our own relatives.

And now I understand that the advice was given to me to prevent ‘Burn-out’. I have learnt that sometimes I am unable to solve all my patient’s problems, and that I am not responsible for all their woes. I have also realised that just because I can’t help them, it doesn’t mean I don’t care. It is often enough for people to know that someone cares.

I have discovered that I need to reserve some ‘caring’- for myself and people who love me. I need to care about my health, that I shouldn’t live on chocolates and coffee. I need to care about my husband, what problems he’s having at work and why he’s wearing a shirt with missing buttons. I need to care about my mother, who still refuses to have her home security installed. I need to care about my 90-year-old neighbour, who still push my bin out every week for the rubbish truck but can barely manage to climb up the stairs of his porch. I need to care about my ever-loyal staff, who stays behind in the office and keeps their family waiting in the evening because I have two extra patients to see.

But how does one measure ‘caring’? And how do you dish it out in equal portions? What is enough and what is too much?

Caring is frustrating. It brings with it tiresome worries, sleepless nights and at times, total helplessness.

If I could talk to Prof now, I would ask him, ‘But, how do you NOT care?’

Two minutes

Mrs Warren* came into my practice yesterday.

Mrs Warren is the mother of Hannah*. Hannah was a 35 year old beautiful young mother of three children, who passed away from metastatic breast cancer two weeks ago. Hannah was my patient three months before she succumbed to her illness.

I heard Mrs Warren’s voice at the front desk reception.

I stayed in my office, consumed by guilt. When Hannah was dying in hospital two weeks ago, one of the nursing staff informed me about her readmission into hospital. ‘Things are not good, I don’t think it will be long.’ 

‘Maybe I should pop by and visit.’ I thought, mentally swiping at the tears that threatened to clog up behind my eyes.

‘I think they will really like that. Hannah loved you. She thought the world of you.’

I started, then realised I had thought out aloud, the nurse was just responding to my comment.

Days, then weeks passed. I couldn’t bring myself to visit her. Several times I walked towards her room – steeling myself to walk in to face her emaciated semi-conscious form on the bed, surrounded by her grieving family – then finding myself turning, striding rapidly away.

Hannah was my age. She was a lawyer, a lawyer who studied hard, worked long hours, made sacrifices and achieved. She once told me that she was the youngest associate ever to be offered partner. She told me how there was no female lawyers in her department at which we both smiled simultaneously in mutual understanding. She said she sees a reflection of herself when she looks at me. As I do, when I see her.  

I never went to see her, I never said goodbye. I never attended the funeral. AFter all, I told myself, she wasn’t a friend. She was a patient. The only thing I did, was to write a card to her family.

Now her mother is standing in my office. And I am kicking myself. I should have made more of an effort. It would have just been ten minutes of my life; After all, my ten minutes would have been nothing compared to ten minutes in her last days. My cowardice overwhelmed me,  I found myself hiding in my office, afraid to move. Or breathe.

‘Hello Mrs Warren, we are so sorry to hear about Hannah.’

‘Thank you.’ I imagined her waving her hand elegantly. Mrs Warren always reminded me of a grand matriach, she moved and spoke with such pride and grace. ‘I just wanted to come in and thank the doctor for her card.’ A sniffle. ‘It was so lovely that I had to read it to Hannah yesterday.’ A brief silence was followed by a sharp snap of a handbag. Must have been a tissue. I could almost see her in my mind, using the task as an oportunity to gather her composure.

‘You know, we had so many people at the funeral last week, the church had to leave the doors open.’ There was less wobble in her voice. ‘We got so many flowers and cards.’

‘She had so many specialists, but doctor was the only one who sent a card. Please thank her for me, we were so pleasantly suprised……’

I shut the door.

Tears were running down my face. I was humbled.

It seems the two minutes it took for me to write a card was enough for them.

 

 *All names have been changed to ensure confidentiality and protect privacy.