“That you are here — that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Again, that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. This quote by Walt Whitman, one of the great poets and writers of the past century, happened to also be my Facebook cover photo for several years, representing my teenage angst and desire to be seen. Of course, at that point in my life, I had never actually read Walt Whitman or anything beyond the intriguing plots of young adult dystopian novels. Still, we had read the passage in our English class and that quote stuck with me, resounding in my head. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That is all I had wanted to do — to contribute a verse. As a child, I told my father I wanted to find the cure for cancer; I wanted to change things. As a teen, I wanted to stop climate change, bridge intersectionality in feminism and increase voter enthusiasm in my peers. I wanted to contribute a verse.
Somewhere along the way, my desire to change the world dwindled, slowly faded and eventually crashed and burned as unprecedented times became the new normal. As political polarity took a chokehold on the scientific and medical communities, society became more skeptical and outright distrustful of physicians and scientists. As my first year of medical school turned into a maelstrom of anxiety and arguments about whether the illness that was overfilling hospitals and pushing healthcare workers to new lows of burnout was a hoax, I lost my voice. What could I ever really change?
The powerful play would go on without me. No longer bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for over two years, I, like many others, felt the taste of activism, hope and possibility that I could one day contribute to greater good turn sour in my mouth. Selfish is what I would be. The truth was, I carried the weight of that dark cloud for so long that it became familiar to me. The quote’s meaning had twisted in my stomach, kinked and coiled over. Those contributing a verse often contributed to the disillusionment and divide. The voice that shouted with negativity and pessimism was much louder than that of hope.
This cloud of disillusionment carried over until my third-year clinical rotations. I had never truly scrubbed into an OR before, and I was incredibly terrified on my first day of general surgery. So, I was skeptical when the scrub tech said, “Congratulations on getting here.” Yet somehow, against all odds, something clicked. Within the bright, sterile, cold OR, “Can’t get you off my mind,” rang out. “Late Night Talking” — this was my favorite Harry Styles song and surprisingly, also happened to be my attending’s favorite. As the fellow began cutting, the moment felt emotionally and spiritually charged for me. There was a deep, moving significance that I could not pinpoint. Our patient, a lovely and long-time healthcare worker, had handed over her autonomy and now lay unconscious, trusting and relying on the team to provide her with medical care. I simply stood back, observing. The powerful play goes on.
As medical students, we are goal-oriented. I, like many of my peers, wanted to be seen. I wanted to contribute to changing the world. Yet, here I was, witnessing something most humans never have the privilege to see. Here I was, witnessing advanced medicine in front of my eyes. My cynical heart had opened up to the cheesy, hackneyed idiom that medicine is art, medicine is beauty. How lucky I was to contribute to this patient’s care and how lucky we are to have the knowledge to do so. There is a delicate and inherently human exchange of trust in medicine, especially in the operating room, between patient and physician. My verse that day was to hold the suction, learn to close and absorb every detail. And, perhaps, that is where my verse begins.