During morning rounds, the resident and I stopped by our young patient’s room. He was technically five weeks old, but was born five weeks prematurely, so all in all, he was delightfully newborn-sized. The nurse was sitting in a recliner, holding him. He was well enough to be held. We finished rounds, ate breakfast, and headed to the OR. Our work unexpectedly finished early for the day, and I was free to go. Instead of immediately leaving the hospital, I headed back to our young patient’s room.
I found his nurse. I explained that I had free time and wanted to practice physical examination skills on an infant. “I’m really interested in pediatrics but I haven’t had my pediatrics rotation yet, and I’ve never done a physical exam on a baby before,” I offered. I asked whether she could show me a few things when she had time. Even though everything I asked was genuine, the nurse said knowingly, “You want to hold him, don’t you?” Yes! Yes, I did. Apparently I’m a wide-open book, and I wear my heart on my sleeve.
She set me up in a comfy chair, gave me a pillow, handed me the baby, and even handed me the remote to the TV-as if I was going to be watching TV! (Although I did change the channel from the news to Turner Classic Movies; it seemed more fitting.) Lastly, she handed me a control that had a call button, in case I needed her for any reason. Then she left for her lunch break, and I was finally alone with the little baby. He was sleeping, bundled up in a blanket. He was nice and warm, and his small, round face seemed so perfect to me; it was hard to believe that other parts of his body had not formed as well … but the surgeons were working on it. Our patient had successfully endured two operations, and a final one would be needed before he’d have a chance to function like any other boy. From the outside, nobody would know.
Holding this baby boy in my arms and looking at him, I felt sad. When I met his mother during an outpatient office visit a few days before, she had seemed so disconnected, like she was not fully present. Of course no parent would be “happy” to have to go through what she did, but I would hope to see a little more light in her eyes, not just exhaustion and defeat. The father, on the other hand, seemed more involved; he had asked many questions about how best to care for his son. As I held the baby, I felt that his parents should know they were lucky to have him. I felt fortunate to be holding him. It could have been any day, but I really needed him this particular day. Even though the nurse later thanked me for taking the time to hold him for as long as I did, I knew that they were the ones I needed to thank — the nurse, and the baby himself. I wondered who he would be someday. That baby boy would never know that one time, when he was in the hospital, he utterly made the day of a third year medical student.
I remember how he finally started to wake up. It was like his eyelids were so heavy, he could barely lift them. His eyebrows arched upwards as he struggled to open his eyes. He eventually succeeded and I caught a glimpse of his dark blue eyes. He also made some grunting noises — those inexplicably adorable grunts that newborns make. At least two times, I took the liberty to unwrap the blanket a bit to check out his cute baby feet. How could I not?
I have been wondering if perhaps I do not have a purely objective passion for pediatrics, and more specifically, neonatology. How much is a medical interest, and how much is a strong maternal instinct, announcing itself and demanding attention? Or is the line blurred? Are they complimentary or mutually exclusive? For years I had heard young women my age occasionally say things like, “I know I want to be a mother someday.” I could not even think that far. But being surrounded by all of these babies, and finally holding one, I have lately had the thought, I want one of my own. I realize I am a product of millions of years of evolution. My brain is designed to look at a baby and think, “How cute!” My brain is designed to respond to affection. And so, when I held that baby, dopamine and other neurotransmitters were signaling millions of neurons, as they have evolved to do. However, just because I’m aware of this does not mean I should resist the urge to care, simply for the sake of resisting it. No! Instead, relax, let go, and enjoy that darling baby boy!