In retrospect, the moment that I decided to go to medical school happened in our kitchen. My mother answered the phone back when phones hung on walls. Back when one phone belonged to everyone in the house. Back when I was going to be an English teacher.
My dad had been moved to a Rehab facility. He needed to recover from the spine surgery that he endured after the accident. That stupid accident, the one where he was volunteering for his church. Fixing their roof. And he fell.
My boyfriend at the time would tell me years later that he kept having a recurring dream of that day. You see, he was there, too, helping my dad. In the dream, he heard him call his name, saw his hands outstretched, falling, but he couldn’t grab him, his fingers just out of reach, and then he was gone, over the edge of the world.
The moments after the accident are a blur. ER. My father on a stretcher. His face contorted into a Picasso painting of horror from the pain. And he couldn’t move his legs. The nurses, the doctor. Everyone talking, but no one speaking our language. What is happening? Lumbar fracture. Bone fragments. Spinal cord injury. Emergency surgery. Paralysis. May never walk again.
And then it was over. Only thing left was to wait. Wait for healing. Wait for the swelling to go down. Wait for the remaining muscles, nerves to reveal themselves. Wait to discover what was left. Like the aftermath of an atomic bomb.
So we went home. And then the phone rang. My mom grabbed the phone first.
Hello? This is she. Silence. Her face changed. She looked confused. Then shocked. Then angry. But we have insurance. Quiet. Now she is pacing. Her left hand on her hip. How dare you call us at our home. You will get your money when you get it. My husband just had that surgery and you are calling us for money now? You should be ashamed of yourself!
And she hung up the phone. Abruptly.
I have questioned for 20 years, who was on the other end of that phone? At the time and for many years afterward, I believed it to be the surgeon. Now that I am a doctor, it doesn’t seem likely. It was likely the surgeon’s office manager, which happened to be his wife. I recently asked my mom, do you remember that phone call? And she didn’t. She never remembers such things. The phone call that changed everything for me.
The phone call was the pivotal moment for me because we had never been exposed to the business side of medicine before. The side that looks for profit. The side that affords Mercedes and beach houses. The side that calls a shell-shocked family and demands to be paid for services rendered. The man that spoke at us more than to us. The man whose hands meticulously removed bone from my father’s spinal cord, with each delicate movement either saving or severing vital nerve connections. Nerves that served a bladder, the bowels, the tiny little muscle fibers that collectively provide motion. The motion in a body that physically labored for his family and without such movement they may lose everything.
He needed to be paid. And I knew what I needed to do. I needed to know. Everything. I would never be in a position of such fear again. The not knowing. And I needed to do it differently. I would never treat a family with such indifference. I would never do it for the money. Maybe I wouldn’t be a Neurosurgeon, but I would be a doctor. And I would do it better than him.
I wish I could say that wanting to help people, that seeing my father suffer and recover by the great medical care that he received motivated me to want to be a doctor. In many ways it did. But it was that asshole surgeon that really lit my fuse. Doctors should be better than that. My dad deserved better than that. I would be better than that. Wouldn’t I?
Photo credit: soopahtoe