In the strictest sense, a role model is someone you pattern your life after or strive to be like. I feel it can also be someone whom you have chosen to be your teacher, whether actively learning or just following an example put forth by them. Early in my college life, a set of circumstances arose that allowed me to experience the classroom of a teacher named Agnes. I had no idea what a profound impact the experience would have on my life. It was only after years of digesting my experiences there that I made the decision to be a doctor. I traveled a great distance to share in Agnes’ work. Looking back, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity, as she died in 1997.
The most significant work I did with Agnes as my guide was in a hospice. But “hospice” was a word that I would not learn for many years. We called it what it was, the Home for the Dying. On my first day, as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, it struck me that the most complex pieces of equipment were the few ceiling fans turning above me. Men on cots stretched in three rows down the length of the long room with even more men between them on the floor. There were no empty spaces, and moving among them were two easily distinguishable groups. The nurses each wore the same simple, white outfits. I belonged to the other group with paler skin and Western-style clothing. We were foreigners, almost all from Western Europe or the United States. Each had their own reason for being there, but each moved with the same purpose—to try to ease the pain of those who had come to die with a roof over their heads.
During the following days, I learned what my daily responsibilities would be for that summer, not including the days that I would spend sick in bed. I had no medical training and so I helped with the simplest tasks. The men would signal to me when they had to use the bathroom. Some needed only an arm to lean on, but many had to be carried. I was not an athlete and had avoided most sports, but I could lift any man in the room. The bathroom turned out to be some holes in the floor around the corner. Meals were mainly rice, and we focused our attention on those who could not feed themselves. The nurses would then have me deliver strange pills to men suffering from diseases equally unknown to me. Despite my medical ignorance, I needed no education to know that these men suffered with their pain almost every moment, with death eventually finding them.
One day, a man gestured for me to massage his back. I found some oil in a cupboard and gently rubbed it across his shoulders. As I realized that he was not going to break under the pressure of my fingertips, I began to rub harder. We sat in silence for several minutes as I worked the oil into his skin. There were many men left for me to attend to, and I started to feel the pressure to return to my assigned duties. As I stood up, he turned to thank me. His smile made me pause, as I had not seen many of those since my arrival. It was when I turned to face the room that I had to stop completely. All of the men nearby were reaching out asking to be next. This wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, but I could not see how it could be wrong. I had no medical training, and the medicine being practiced was then beyond my understanding. I knew that the men needed me to help them to eat and use the bathroom. But it wasn’t until I spread the oil across their backs that I felt truly useful. I felt I had found my place. Almost all had been abandoned to die, and I think that being touched in a caring way, not just manipulated as bodies, was a connection that they were craving. I think Agnes knew the kinds of lessons I would learn there, and she had only to set up the “classroom” and set me loose upon it. There I learned the value of touch and the patience to sit next to someone and use it. This is what I carry with me.
I could never live the life that Agnes did. To even just model my life after her would be impossible for me. I am flawed and far from perfect. I have my moments of clarity when I see my selfishness, my vanity, my stubbornness, and my pride. I accept these traits as part of who I am. What I also have are the lessons she taught me about myself. Agnes showed me the compassion and tenderness of which I am capable. But she showed me that I am capable of these things not only when I am safe and comfortable but also when I am sick and scared and far from everything I know. She showed me that even when I think I have nothing to offer someone, not even a word in a common language, I have a smile to wear upon my lips and my hands to extend even if only for a touch. Though now I wear a white coat and carry a stethoscope, my hands remain free and my expressions unobstructed. Into each patient’s room I try to carry these lessons. I feel very lucky to have had her for a teacher. As I can think of no other teachers whom I refer to by their first name, I should stop referring to her as Agnes. Besides, this was the name her mother gave to her. Teresa is the name she took when she entered the sisterhood. In Calcutta, we all called her Mother.
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 more than 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- and second-prize winners were published in the October and November 2003 issues. The essay by the third-prize winner, David Edwards, appears here.
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]〉.