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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.

Trapped and Waiting

Trapped and Waiting

© 2013 Association of American Medical Colleges