A Humanistic Role Model in My Medical Career : Academic Medicine

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Gold Foundation Essay

A Humanistic Role Model in My Medical Career

Gagovic, Veronika

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Although it has been ten years since my father’s death, I still notice his presence, most evident in times of crisis and high stress. My father’s legacy is the ability to laugh at life and keep it in perspective. It is something I keep inside of me as sacred, to reinforce my purpose and straighten my direction, especially in times when I doubt myself the most. And it is medicine, the calling we share, that ties our lives together.

Medicine for me began in Prijedor, the small Bosnian town where I grew up. My father, a tall and humorous man, was one of the town doctors. In the 1980s, an impoverished socialized medicine system did not always allow for the best medical care. During the week, my father struggled to provide noncompromised care for his patients. This often meant working long hours and finding ways around the rigid rules of the health care system. On weekends, my father visited older patients who lived in the villages on the surrounding mountains and who could not make it to the hospital on their own. Since the age of five, I had accompanied my father on these weekend trips, watching in amazement as my father laughed with ill people about life and even their sickness. Putting these things in perspective, my father was able to give every situation a positive turn.

In 1986, our family moved to Western Samoa, where my father worked with the United Nations Development Program to set up a health system in a country short on medical care. My mother, brother, and I all accompanied him to remote villages where we distributed medication and organized the lines of people who were waiting to be seen. We knew that Father was the first doctor these people had ever seen. We stayed at their homes and felt a part of their culture. Once again, my father was able to make people laugh, making his humor and reassurance felt even across a language barrier.

We returned to Bosnia in 1988 to find tension rising in the country. By 1991, Communism had fallen, and democratic parties had taken over. People started to define themselves by national heritage and religion. My father, as a well-liked and respected Moslem physician, was expected to join a political party. He refused, on the ground that a good physician cannot be partisan. Instead, Father joined Party for Peace, a group of people of diverse backgrounds who had in common an opposition to conflict. I still remember March 1992 and my father’s speech to a gathering of several thousand citizens. He stood on a platform in front of the town and read a letter from a mother who had lost her son in battle in Croatia. In his trembling voice, to the silent crowd on the brink of war, Father conveyed the futility of war.

War came in May 1992.

On June 13th, six armed soldiers barged into our home and took my father into a civilian concentration camp. Thirteen years of age, I stood petrified and helpless. In the days that followed, news about my father started to arrive from the camp. We found out that Father healed and comforted fellow inmates. He used cabbage leaves as bandages and women’s hair to stitch prisoner’s wounds, working to save even those condemned to die. Through all of this, father used humor to strengthen the inmates. He gave them reasons to be strong: their children, wives, and grandchildren. Even as he was taken to his death, reports were that his greeting was light and his manner calming. My father remained a healer to his last moments.

My father’s death should have broken me emotionally. Yet his incredible strength and his incredible ability to challenge fate in adversity made unacceptable any such surrender from someone outside of the barbed wire. I knew his legacy remained inside of me and in all those people he saved in the concentration camp. I lived the next three years of war caring for my life, guarding it through discrimination, ostracism, and physical assaults.

After the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995, I started working to support my family as a translator with the Peace Implementation Forces. After three years of silence, I was able to mention my father’s name, and I found that talking about him made him come to life. During the weekends, I volunteered with the Red Cross physicians. Their interactions with Bosnian refugees brought back beautiful memories of my family and my childhood. I understood refugees and the pain of their exile yet I could do nothing to relieve their physical ailments. This is when I realized that I needed knowledge of medicine to reach those who need me.

In 1997, I immigrated to the United States, leaving my family behind. At first I struggled with loneliness in a new country. Then in September 1997, I came across an issue of The Chicago Tribune. On the front page was a picture of a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp, someone I knew whose life my father had saved. The accompanying article described my father’s work at the camp, his compassion, and his healing ability. I realized that I was not alone. My father was here, in Chicago, in the lives of the people he helped. Just like that, I had a new home.

Now in my second year of medical school, I study to continue in my father’s footsteps. Being a physician will be the best way to honor his legacy. It will allow me to mold my life into words and skills that can teach those who need help to be whole. Then I, too, will be complete.

The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, Inc., is a public, not-for-profit organization founded in 1988 to nurture and sustain the time-honored tradition of caring throughout medical school and residency. Today, the Foundation has initiated or supports 26 diverse programs at 93% of our nation’s medical schools and at schools abroad. Its programs and projects are derived from the beliefs that: compassion and respect are essential to the practice of medicine and enhance the healing process, the habits of humanistic care can and should be taught, and medical role-model practitioners who embody humanistic values deserve support and recognition.

In 1999, the Gold Foundation instituted the annual Humanism in Medicine Essay Contest as a way to encourage medical students to reflect on their experiences in writing. Since the contest’s beginning, the Foundation has received over a thousand essays from more than 110 schools of medicine and osteopathy.

The theme for the 2002 Humanism in Medicine Essay Contest was “A Humanistic Role Model in My Medical Career.” Winning essays and honorable mentions were selected by a distinguished panel of judges. For the second year in a row, Academic Medicine is pleased to publish the top three winning essays from the 2002 contest; the essay by the first-prize winner, Veronika Gagovic, appears here. The second- and third-place essays will appear in the November and December issues, respectively.

Winning essays are also published on the Foundation’s Web site: 〈www.humanism-in-medicine.org〉 and in The Foundation’s DOC newsletter. For further information, please call The Arnold P. Gold Foundation at 201-567-7999 or email: 〈[email protected]〉.

Veronika Gagovic

Ms. Gagovic is a third-year student at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois.

Correspondence and requests for reprints should be addressed to Ms. Gagovic, 111 Woodside, Riverside, Illinois 60546.

© 2003 Association of American Medical Colleges