Medical fiction originally published in In-Training Magazine November 29, 2017.
A third-year medical student gets stuck in a stairwell on her first day of her surgery rotation. All she wants is out, but she meets a distraught mother of a patient and a seasoned hospital employee who remind her of the privilege of medical school training.
“No, no, no,” I repeated, first silently and then as a whisper, as I frantically pushed the elevator button.
The reliable elevator chime did not ring, and the button light would not stay on.
“Great. Fantastic,” I sarcastically muttered.
It was my first day, and I did not bring my stethoscope to grand rounds. I thought grand rounds was just a lecture of grandiose proportions. But, no. The senior attending physician looked right at me and asked me for my stethoscope. I froze. I didn’t have it. I thought my surgery rotation was supposed to be about blood and guts, scalpels and sutures. Why was this happening to me?
The reason I did not bring my stethoscope was because fourth-year students told me to travel light. They said that all you need are your scrubs, a pencil and some paper. In a split second, you may be running behind the trauma team into an operating room. Extra stuff would contaminate the sterile field resulting in the scrub tech effectively cursing your existence and dramatically rolling her eyes to theoretical Kalamazoo.
So now I had to go get my stethoscope to listen to God-knows-what — trust me, while I can reliably hear the lub–dub of S1 and S2, please don’t ask me to distinguish a diastolic murmur from an extra heart sound. As a newly minted third year, I’m not there yet. Guess I’ll take the stairs…
I entered the stairwell, and the pitter-patter of my feet rapidly hitting the steps ricocheted off the walls. I reached the next landing and pulled the door handle. It didn’t open. I swiped my badge, and the red light blinked twice in defiance.
Great, medical student access denied, I thought.
I rushed to the next landing and tried the door, only to receive the red blinks.
You have got to be kidding me. The next landing didn’t even have a keypad to swipe my badge. Seriously?
I looked down the spiral staircase and got nauseous just thinking about continuously descending, round and round, for 20 more flights. It didn’t help that I had not been to the gym in weeks.
Thank you, med school, for sucking out my spirit and making turning the pages of ginormous textbooks my most strenuous physical activity, I thought bitterly.
You are taking the stairs down to the lobby. Accept it, I chided myself.
I looked up at the quote painted haphazardly on the wall: “The hardest part of the journey is taking the first step.” How cute. The stairwell was a cheerleader in a previous life.
Soon the solo sound of my determined descent merged with another. It was the sound of jogging steps approaching and then receding. Approaching and then receding. Finally, I came face to face with the source. Her eyes were puffy. I wasn’t sure if it was from physiologic crying or a pathologic process.
“Don’t mind me,” she said as she passed me on her way up the stairs.
I stood still as she passed me again on her way back down. She was wearing a black tracksuit with a double white stripe down the side. Her worn sneakers matched her outfit, stripe and all. She looked exhausted, frightened and alert all at the same time. She stopped before passing me the third time and looked at my ID badge. She must have seen that I was a medical student because she began talking unprompted and without restraint.
It was her son, Gayel. They said he was in respiratory distress and had been admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit. And so, she was going up and down the stairs. Up and down to get the sight of his nose flaring out of her head. To remove the sight of his tummy muscles moving rapidly in and out as he struggled to breathe from her mind. He had turned blue. Her happy, smiling, pink bundle of four-month-old joy had turned blue right before her eyes. And that’s when she called 911. She admitted that, while she knew it was weird, maybe even twisted, it comforted her to lose her breath climbing stairs. All Gayel wanted was to breathe, and if he couldn’t, maybe she shouldn’t. When she stopped talking, I tried to NURS her. Pronounced like nurse, the mnemonic stood for name, understand, respect and support. I had learned this method in my touchy-feely clinical skills course. Our instructors recommended this method to effectively address our patients’ emotions.
“You seem overwhelmed, and honestly, I can only begin to understand what you are going through. You recognized that Gayel was in danger and sought help. That takes courage and initiative, and I’m proud of you for that. The doctors, nurses and health care team are here for you now. They will do their best to help Gayel to breathe normally again.”
“Thank you,” she mumbled.
We locked eyes for about five seconds. I’m not sure if it was a flicker of hope in her eye or maybe just a receding tear. She quickly turned on her heels and re-entered through the doors to the hospital floors. Rather than escaping the stairwell after her, I continued down the stairs. Descending the stairs was now a proven coping mechanism.
The next landing had French-style glass doors with the word “Laundry” printed in faded black block letters. I could see a woman pushing an industrial-sized cart filled to the brim with scrubs, identical to the powder-blue ones I had proudly donned earlier that morning. I waved frantically to get her attention, and she quickly came to open the door.
“And … you must be lost,” she said in the rich accent of a southern grandmother, her drawl wrapping me in a hug as her words lingered in the air.
“Hi, I’m Kamari. I’m a third-year medical student. I’m trying to get out of this stairwell and down to the lobby,” I blurted out.
“A medical student?” she questioned, in a tone mixed with both respect and disbelief. “Like, you’re going to be a doctor?”
“Yes. I am.”
“A doctor,” she said with a smug smile across her face. “Hi, I’m Donna. I’m one of the Santa Clauses who makes sure you get clean scrubs from the scrub dispenser on the fourth floor.”
I had never contemplated how it worked. The scrub dispenser was like a vending machine for scrubs: I swiped my badge and out came clean scrubs.
“You know,” she said in a hushed tone, “I am a scientist at heart. I was a maintenance worker in a factory for 18 years before coming to work for the hospital. In another life, I was an engineer.”
She chuckled more to herself than to me.
“Well, you better hurry along. You have things to learn. Lives to save!” she said. “And, honey, the stairs are the fastest way. You don’t want to get lost going through the Laundry.”
I thanked her before turning around and walking away.
“See you later, Doc,” she said proudly, as I continued my journey.
The last flight of stairs was bittersweet. I pushed open the door and was finally met with the hustle and bustle of the busy lobby. Patients and their families, nurses and doctors, all moving in scattered directions, some more purposefully than others. I was back to reality, but the stairwell left me feeling hyperaware of my surroundings. As a future physician, absolute strangers trust me with their fears and the intimate details of their lives. Others see me as an inspiration and are proud of me without even knowing me. While I had been counting down the years to graduation and stressing over the heavy course load of medical school, the stairwell redirected my focus.
And here I was concerned about my stethoscope.