It was an unusually warm Saturday in October, and my alarm started buzzing. I wanted so badly to shut it off, but my conscience told me this was not an option. I had to get up so that I could go help my fellow classmates weed and plant at the community garden. This is because part of the curriculum at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (CMSRU) includes 40 hours of community service a year. Often when I am consumed by the thoughts of an upcoming exam or extremely sleep deprived from too many hours of studying, this number overwhelms me. However, the irony is that the very act of doing community service often helps me to relax and keep things in perspective. This Saturday was no exception. This was the day I met Jayden, a three-year-old foster care child, whom I will never forget.
As someone who has wanted to go into the field of pediatrics since the day I decided I wanted to be a doctor, which I think was around age four, I am constantly inspired by the children of Camden. They are forced to deal with challenges that I cannot even fathom dealing with as an adult, and far too many of them are forced to grow up before they are ready. Whether I am reading with children at Head Start or planting with them in the garden, I always do my best to truly connect with them. And because I do not always succeed, I feel extremely fortunate whenever I do connect.
When I arrived at the garden, I was pleasantly surprised by how many local Camden children were there to help us plant. As my eyes spanned the garden, I noticed one little boy standing all by himself. He looked lost, confused, sad and angry. I approached Ms. Sheila, a well-known community leader who lives in the neighborhood, to ask her about the little boy. She told me that he was a foster care child. He was placed with her a few weeks ago, after being taken from his parents, but she did not know anything about him or his family, nor did she know if his parents would ever be allowed to care for him. She described him as a sweet boy who clearly missed his family and was very upset by the situation. He was too young to understand why someone would take him away from his home, and the look on his face broke my heart.
After hearing this, I went up to Jayden and asked him if he wanted to help me plant. Reluctantly he agreed. At first he seemed very skeptical, but after about 10 minutes we became best friends. His frown became a beaming smile, and we spent the rest of the day laughing and chasing each other around the garden. Ms. Sheila told me that this was the first time she had seen him truly happy since she met him, and all over again my heart broke. While I was thrilled that I was able to bring some joy into Jayden’s life, I wished I could do more for him. When he asked if he could come home with me, I was so tempted to say yes, even though I knew it was not possible. And when it came time to say goodbye, I felt so helpless. What was going to happen to him? Who would raise him? Would he ever get to know his real family? Would he spend his life being passed from one foster family to another? Would he be angry forever? My mind was racing with questions that to this day still remained unanswered.
The Monday after I met Jayden was my first day of Week on the Wards, and I was going to be spending the entire week on the pediatrics floor. I knew the week would be exciting and a great learning experience, but what I didn’t know is that I would spend the entire week being reminded of Jayden. While I knew that being a pediatrician meant having to deal with the sad reality of child abuse, I did not realize the extent to which it is a part of the job. On my first day on the floor, at least half of the patients were cases of suspected child abuse. As we went from room to room doing rounds, I couldn’t help but think of Jayden. Most of the children seemed perfectly happy, and their families seemed extremely loving. For one reason or another their injury made the physicians suspicious of child abuse, and thus their cases were reported to the social workers. Thankfully most suspected cases end up being dismissed, but sadly there are far too many that do not have a happy ending.
While foster care might be a solution to the immediate problem, Jayden has taught me that the solution is imperfect. Foster care is not a fairy tale ending to these children’s stories, but rather, in many cases, it is only the beginning of the nightmare they are living. Prior to meeting Jayden, I was always relieved to hear a story about a child being removed from an abusive family, but I had never given much thought to what happens afterwards. I assumed the child’s life would be better than it had been before, but I now understand that this is often not the case. Foster care is a solution to a problem which unfortunately can end up causing many more problems.
The reality is that I will be faced with many more instances of child abuse and I will meet many more foster care children throughout my medical education and career. However, Jayden will always hold a special place in my heart. He reminds me of the unimaginable hardships these children are facing, he inspires me to do everything I can to bring a smile to their faces, and he motivates me to continue on my journey of caring for children and their families. I don’t know where Jayden is or what his future has in store for him, but I hope that he is blessed with the loving family that he deserves.