I have come to the conclusion that there are three types of people in the world: those who love children, those who are petrified of children, and those who are paralyzed by the idea of anything bad happening to children. Pediatricians are, of course, of the first group. (The latter two are the only excuses I hear for not working with children; and that is what they are — excuses.)
As pediatricians, we can be neither terrified by children’s energy nor by their frailty; in fact, we are most often inspired by their resilience. Bad things do happen, but we work to make them better. And for the children that we help, it is a privilege, a pleasure, of which we are daily reminded.
When I started as a pediatric resident, I believed that pediatricians, endowed with that love they have for children, somehow become immune to seeing sad things, or somehow those things are overwhelmed by good things – the successes, the lives saved, the smiles won. Or maybe just the fact that there are bubbles being blown everywhere and we get to walk around with toys on our stethoscopes.
However, it did not take long to realize that it only takes one devastating moment to completely annihilate the joy of an otherwise happy day. This, coupled with the fact that sadness in children is somehow cumulative, more so than in other demographics. In this thought, I am supported by Abraham Lincoln who once wrote, “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares.”
In time, I began to understand those who claim affiliation with the third group of people. It became apparent that I needed a method to cope. Looking around, I saw many different strategies: some people cry, some people lavish attention on their own children, some people eat … .
It took some time to find mine, but then I started to write.
I remember the feeling of elation of stringing words together, imbuing each sentence, each word, with my emotions. It was as though the page came alive, and myself with it. I had found my voice again, and a way of dealing with my experiences. Putting my observations, my thoughts, and my struggles into words helped me sort through the part that I played in patients’ lives. And it rewoke in me the simple joy of writing.
Over time, I started sharing some of my writings, at first with people I thought would understand; then, emboldened, with more and more people. To my constant surprise, many physicians and non-physicians shared and expressed empathy with the sentiments that I wrote. Not only did this encourage me that I was not alone, but it also inspired me that my words could help guide someone else on the path to discovery or help them say what they never could before. Delighted, I delved into a body of literature of medical writings by doctors and patients alike – along with my old favorites Tolstoy and Chekov – searching for written mentors. Over and over again I was impressed by how the words of others moved my own soul. Though I am far away or even in a different era, I am affected by the insight they had the courage to share. What a priceless gift they have left.
In finding myself writing again, I have learned that we all have something to share. From patients and their families to doctors and nurses to volunteers and social workers and everyone in between, we all have a unique way to express ourselves and reach out to others. For me, I write, partly because I am compelled to. As Perri Klass wrote in her book “Baby Doctor,” “Writing is a pleasure and an escape, an indulgence and a discipline, if you are someone who needs to write.” It is a way to help me stay afloat amidst a sea of sorrows, and if it can help others clamber onboard as well and peer through the spyglass toward the horizon, then I have accomplished something.
A family friend wrote a short book about her experience of a beloved sister with breast cancer. In it, she gives practical advice for how families can help with the daily life concerns of chemotherapy, hairstyles and food, but she also explores what it was like to have someone you care for face cancer. The love and struggle that are evident throughout her book make it beautiful, and I am sure the most poignant for readers sorting through their own heartache. Though often less recognized, such writings are powerful; they are moving because they are real, and speak to the multitudes of people who struggle with health problems; which if we think of it, in some ways, is all of us, for “No man is an island, entire of itself,” as John Donne so eloquently reminds us.
Therefore, I hope we all will find and remember some way to share with one another. And as for me, I think I will continue writing.
Ashley Treece, M.D.
Second-Year Resident in Pediatrics
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital
Editor’s note: Dr. Treece recently won first place in the American Pediatric Association Special Interest Group Essay Contest. Congratulations!
One response to “How I cope: writing as medicine”
This is so eloquently written. I, too, am category 3 and wish I could write to express emotion, as well as you Dr. Treece. I am so glad that our community has you at our best children’s hospital!