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A Near-Death Reminder

Two days ago, I took my final anatomy exam after finishing a long two-month ordeal dissecting through and memorizing every component of the human body. At the beginning of the course, I was excited, energized and honored to begin such a foundational experience in medical training. By the end I was exhausted, wanting nothing more than to just sleep. The very next day, we began physiology with two weeks of cardiology separating us from the winter holidays. I woke up Saturday morning preparing myself for a full day at the library studying. I would watch the lecture, review the e-book, take notes, and make and memorize flashcards — an ordeal I had once taken pride in formulating. Now it just felt routine. In the afternoon, I packed up my books and prepared my drive to New Brunswick to attend our winter formal.

Just a few minutes into my drive, I made a right turn and my car suddenly lost control. It was snowing the entire day and I realized the road was covered in ice. My car hit one curb, ricocheted and went over another curb. I stared down my line of sight and before me saw trees in a ditch. I braced for the worst, but, before I knew it, my car stopped its downward trajectory towards certain damage. I went through a bush and its branches caught my right wheels, possibly damaging my vehicle but also possibly saving my life.

As I sat in my car, bewildered at what just happened, a man with a snow shovel began walking towards me. He lived down the hill and saw my accident. When I looked down the hill, where my car would have been had I not hit this bush, I saw his young children and wife playing in the snow. Would I have hit them? Before my conscience could more seriously wrestle with this tormenting thought, the man asked me if I was okay and began shoveling the snow under my tires. We worked together to clear as many branches as we could, but, alas, the car was still stuck. I called 911 and waited for the police to come.

While we waited for the police to come, the man never stopped trying to clear the branches stuck between my tires. Despite the wind and the cold and the time he could be spending playing with his family during the first snow of the year, here was this human being who had interrupted everything to help a mere stranger get his car out of the snow. For him, the task of helping me was the most pressing thing on his mind. In my moments of fear, his presence helped me feel calm and safe. What motivated such compassion?

The police came and the tow truck would eventually come, too. They asked the man to leave because he wasn’t part of the accident. I never got his name, but, before he walked away, I looked at him one more time. Our eyes made contact, and, in that moment, I felt a feeling that had escaped me throughout my pre-clinical medical training thus far. Here was a fellow human being with a kindness that I was the direct beneficiary of, a goodness that I could only conceptualize. I was happy to be alive, grateful to have shared this space with someone who taught me more about strength and moral resolve than any molecular pathway, who gave me a greater understanding of what is meaningful than any arterial landmark. I looked up again and he was gone.

My car would be towed, my insurance rates would surely spike and I would miss my winter formal. And yet, the snow that seemed so frigid just moments ago now suddenly seemed light and blissful, playing in the joyful wind.

Johnathan Yao Johnathan Yao (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

First year medical student. Passionate about how literature, reflective writing, and healthcare systems can cultivate humanistic physicians who not only merely treat diseases, but heal human beings