She’s volunteering, decided what she wants to do. She catches the bus to the hospital from campus, heavy backpack weighing down her slight shoulders. She has a badge, a short powder blue jacket. She works in the playroom: coloring, washing toys, light streaming through the wall of windows as she stoops to read aloud a picture book or set up a seasonal craft on the low plastic tables. The children come in wheelchairs, heads bald or misshapen or shaved with intention. Tubes may be in their nares or arms. All of it is foreign and she doesn’t know how to act naturally so she smiles a lot, maybe too much. Sometimes she delivers a toy to a child confined to their own room: in isolation. Before entering she puts on a crinkly gown and a mask and latex free gloves, just as she was trained to do. She plays with the child, chats with the teen, tries to connect, but her own awkwardness and all the barriers for protection get in the way.
She’s in medical school, deciding what she wants to do. She rotates through the hospital, a shadow of a doctor in a short white coat, tagging along after her resident. Her pockets are weighed down with too much: laminated cards on how to run a pediatric code, a clipboard with preprinted index cards to keep track of each patient’s labs and history, black ball point pens to record chart notes, gum. She learns she always needs to have gum on hand. She walks the halls, familiar but transformed now she’s armed with some knowledge. She gets to know the palpable quiet of the hospital in the middle of the night. The ceilings here are low; everything is miniaturized to make children feel more comfortable, in this place where discomfort distinctively reigns.
She’s in residency, an MD after her name. She doesn’t wear a coat, but instead a black fleece vest with zippered pockets. Sometimes she’s mistaken for a nurse, but she still doesn’t wear the long white coat; it’s just not the way things are done. She monitors her patients and her medical students. She presents each case to the attending each morning at rounds. She knows what she wants to order in the cafeteria when it opens at 2 a.m. for all the providers who are there overnight on call. She’d rather sleep than eat, but that’s not the way things are done here. Residents review the progress of patients with the medical students, with each other, over the mid-night meal. The lights are turned down low and the children are in cribs and in isolation rooms and can’t breathe well or can’t eat well and most certainly won’t sleep well. The nurses page her and talk in quiet voices. Many patients get better and she discharges them. Some are known by all the staff and roam the halls with their IV poles like tiny emperors, because this place, this hospital, too, is their home.
She brings her infant, the youngest of her three, in to see the specialist. She parks in the newish garage built in the same place she used to catch the bus up the hill. She wheels her baby in the stroller. She waits in line to check in, gets an adhesive visitor’s badge with her picture and her child’s name. There’s a Starbucks downstairs now, in this new wing, but she doesn’t have time to stop for a latte. Her child is crying and she’s late. She wears a red raincoat, her pockets filled with the random items of a mother: a used tissue, a miniature toy construction truck, a purple hair clip, a binky, her smartphone. She’s anxious about seeing the specialist, about the prognosis and treatment plan. She has already texted her friend, the pediatrician, who made helpful recommendations, gave expert advice. She now has the luxury of giving and getting medical opinions in an instant, a byproduct of years of training and now experience as a practicing physician. She waits in the waiting room with other families. Some children read, some run, some sit in laps, some in motorized wheelchairs. Her child’s name is called and her baby is weighed, measured. She sees the physician. Her baby is prescribed medication, which she gets from the pharmacy. A girl waiting in line behind her talks animatedly about a book she wants to read. When she turns to check on her baby she can see the girl’s shaved head, the scar from surgery. So many children here so ill, so resilient. As a mother, she always feels grateful, feels guilty, in this place.