Pediatric Intensivist Gwen Erkonen’s fast-paced essay “Baptism by Fire” was recently highlighted in one of my favorite online creative nonfiction journals, Hippocampus Magazine. The piece begins with Erkonen sitting in Grand Rounds, a newly minted attending physician. Erkonen deftly describes the apprehension and weight of responsibility all physicians experience when, after a decade of training, they are finally in charge: “Four years of medical school, three years of pediatric residency, and three more years as a pediatric critical care fellow. My time as a medical apprentice is done. I no longer have an attending physician to help me with my decision-making. I am solely responsible for my patients.”
Erkonen’s pager calls her to an excruciating emergency: a toddler with extensive life-threatening burns. The reader is thrust into the dire situation with her as she assumes care of the critical patient, running the resuscitation efforts of the medical team and communicating with the young girl’s mother in the waiting room.
Erkonen not only relays her own inner turmoil during this first challenge of her new career, she also conveys her keen observations of the other participants. The surgery resident she first meets in the trauma bay “looks cool and in control with his hands folded across his chest and a broad-based stance, but I can tell from his shaking voice he’s not sure what to do.” Erkonen’s details describing the patient’s devastated young mother gives us insight that the family’s narrative is multi-layered and tragic even before this catastrophic event: “She starts to sob, and buries her head in the older lady’s chest. Then I notice that she has a disposable Bic lighter in her hand. She keeps flicking it so that flames jump from the spark wheel…. I notice that her hands are dirty. Not from the fire but because she hasn’t showered in several days.”
Most any physician can empathize with Erkonen’s inner dialogue. Years of training doesn’t negate the adrenaline-infused uncertainty when you first encounter the incredible weight of trying to save another’s life: “Feeling like an idiot, I nonetheless plow forward.” Erkonen is unflinchingly honest in her description of the events and her vivid details leave the reader breathless, exhausted and empathetic, as if we were watching them unfold on a medical drama, yet responsible along with her.
Writing Prompt: Think of a time when you were in a new position that held intense responsibility. Maybe it was your first week as an attending physician or a new job managing a large part of your workplace. Maybe it was your first hours as a new parent. Describe your own inner dialogue and your perception of others you interacted with during that time. Alternatively, try re-writing Erkonen’s essay from the point of view of the surgical resident, the burn nurse, the patient’s mother, the priest, the trauma surgeon. Write for 10 minutes.