The Halls of Wisdom

elderly woman
(On my experience working in a nursing home)


Every youth should walk these dank halls for a day

Hearing Help and staring into dead eyes

Slurred stories swirl and blend

Reimagining the past

Fermented beauty like aged wine

Translucent skin and liquid eyes

Skeleton once hidden now emerges proud

Body that has weathered ninety years

Can boast it’s strength, while youth can just presume

Pictures on walls speak

You see us here, just like you

Our minds intact, vocations strong

Our futures full of hope

A strange regression happens at the end of life

Hobbling in their second infancy

Obsessed with bowels

Clutching a toy cat or doll

The need for warmth

Sensation becomes primary

Scream for no reason, toddler’s rant

Anxiety and agitation, we write, and call for pills

But maybe they’re just trying to go back

Back to the coiled repose of a neonate

Because the end comes too fast

For others not fast enough

There is a reason will to live is lost

Body,mind, potential gone

Gone are dreams of what might be

Past is best, and savors safe

For being here is not enough

In doing we find meaning

Yet all is not futile

And meaning can be sought and found here

Some have found the joy in dying

Exist by being loved when memory fades

Some are content with life lived well

Avoid regrets, and can accept

They find a faith for what comes next

I cringe and seek retreat

By contrast being busy, being needed is a gift

Reminded now to cherish, but not fear

Yet know the day will come when I become them




Working girl

It’s interesting that this innocent phrase colloquially means prostitute, but I’m not writing about that. A woman who works is a woman who uses her skills outside the home to serve others and make an income. Unlike a housewife whose valuable service is sometimes unappreciated, this woman at least gets tangible compensation.

I spent the weekend at a medical conference, surrounded by crusty old doctors in an atmosphere of posh hotel comfort. I have never doubted my career choice (well, maybe a few post-call mornings in residency),and feel a sense of belonging in this venerable vocation of intelligent caring. I heard somewhere that 2/3 of physicians are introverts, and I wasn’t surprised. We like being the experts with the answers, to be sought out by the consumer rather than having to recruit as in other professions. Many of us are independent, value time alone, and find gory procedures fascinating. We add knowledge pragmatically, not being overfond of esoteric details we left behind in med school. To us the reflex question is usually “How will this help me take better care of my patients’? Many of us are cynical, worn by years of inappropriate, manipulative patients, non-compliance, and tragic stories we never got over. But at our core most of us still like and care about people. We want to help them and get great fulfillment from doing so. That idealistic med student still lives inside. Physicians are sometimes socially awkward, the grown up high school nerd that everyone thought was smart but no one invited out. We have money for fashion but couldn’t care less for it. We’re most comfortable in scrubs, talking pathology with our fellow comrades. Some docs get so much identity from their work they don’t change their schedule after residency. Many female physicians I know work full time and their husbands care for their children.
After residency I decided that I didn’t want that life. I respect my female colleagues who work full time and are still devoted to their kids and home life. I didn’t even have kids at the time, but desperately wanted them, and wanted to give 100% when they came. No one has endless energy, patience and time, and when you try to do 2 full time jobs something’s gonna go. I also wanted to have “a life”, which to me entailed meeting with friends, hobbies, exercise and volunteering. I am thankful that working part time was an option, as I know it isn’t for many people.
Now we are working on our third adoption, and I have downsized my work hours to just 1 day a week so I can have personal time when the boys are in preschool and be ready to care for an infant. Working 1 day a week is almost like not working. I feel myself losing ground professionally. My inboxes are full from not being checked. My medical brain is fuzzy bringing up details I haven’t dwelt on in a quarter month. Very little new knowledge is being acquired- I am probably forgetting more than I’m learning. Yet my job satisfaction is really high. I still have enough medical memory to be competent. I enjoy a day away from the kids, interacting with adults as a professional, giving advice and (hopefully) helping people. My compassion meter is high since it’s not overdrained. When an elderly patient tells me “You’re in the right profession” there is a surge of identity and purpose. My brain thrills to the puzzle of medical diagnoses after days of heartwarming but tedious children’s books and games. I like contributing to the family income and having my own tithe to give away.
I have other friends who stop being physicians after their children come. Their decision doesn’t feel permanent to them but I wonder if it will be. Medicine is a jealous and unforgiving lover. It desires to consume all your time, and if you leave you may not be able to come back. Maintenance of knowledge is time consuming, and if that isn’t done the return to work learning curve will be very steep.I don’t think I could make their choice. To me, being a woman in medicine is like being a third culture kid. You have to try to live between the 2 worlds you love. If I stop practicing medicine I will be haunted by my lost identity. If I don’t have quantity time with my kids I will regret the years I lost.
I really love being a doctor, and don’t desire to resign this part of myself, even as my life fills with other things I value more. I will try to walk this tightrope life I have chosen- to be a committed spouse, devoted mom and competent and caring physician.