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Artist’s Statement: Trapped and Waiting

Burchett, Mary MD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182867458
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Dr. Burchett is a first-year resident, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia; e-mail:

During Christmas break of my sophomore year in college, I learned that I was an immediate candidate for valve-sparing aortic root replacement surgery. As I mentally prepared for surgery during the following semester, I experienced the tormenting emotion of being inextricably trapped. To deal with my mounting frustration, all I wanted to do was run and run and run until I could not run any longer. I was consumed by an internal energy that felt like a ball of fire about to explode. The terrible irony was that if I physically did what was required to release this energy, my aorta could rupture or dissect. To prevent this self-injury, I locked myself in my dorm room. I wanted to scream. I wanted to pound my body into the wall. Since I couldn’t do either, I started to paint. I painted the fire that I envisioned enveloping my heart. I depicted my greatest fear, the image that consumed my mind: the rupture of my aortic root.

A week after finals, I headed to a prestigious academic medical center for my surgery. After my operation, however, I was awake in the ICU for more than eight hours without receiving any pain medication. Then I developed a blood clot in my arm. When my chest tubes were removed, I was still anticoagulated. I became weak and could hardly breathe. After a week, I learned that I needed a second open-heart surgery to relieve cardiac tamponade. The next morning, two liters of fluid were removed from my chest cavity. By the time I left the hospital, I had lost so much muscle tone that I could not walk more than 20 feet without sitting down.

After this experience, I understand the limitations of science. I know that medical treatment cannot make everything perfect. However, I also realize that an important part of a physician’s role is to make life a little easier for patients. A physician can do much more than treat the physical reality of a disease. My greatest fear during the event was not death; my greatest fear was being alone. A physician may not be able to fix every problem for a patient, but the physician can always ease the patient’s burden by simply being present in the patient’s life.

During my first month of medical school, I stood by the operating table to witness an open-heart surgery. Most people would not recognize me as the same person whose body was on the edge of death only a few years ago. I breathe and exercise with the security of knowing that I no longer have a time bomb ticking in my chest. Because of the efforts of my surgeon and the lifelong care provided by my cardiologist, my aortic valve was spared. Most important, I have a strong and healthy body that will enable me to serve others. The terrible realities of my past will help me prevent similar realities for my patients in the future.

© 2013 Association of American Medical Colleges