Jamming to Vampire Weekend’s “Diplomat’s Son,” I walked passed two women on 95th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue. Each woman with an unlit cigarette in her mouth, one woman pushing a stroller. Thinking that the stroller could be empty, holding groceries, or carrying a small dog (as is the trend in parts of New York City), I turned around and was surprised to see a child, no more than a few weeks old, quietly sitting in the stroller. Shocked, I clumsily took a few steps away from the trio and debated turning around to mention something about the potential harms of smoking around children. Uncertain, I turned towards them, then away from them. Finally, my uncertainty succumbed to my conscience, and I walked towards the women as they both successfully lit their cigarettes against October’s brisk wind.
I took a few quick steps to approach them and thought about how to convey my thoughts … I stumbled with my words as I said, “It may not be my place to tell you this, but you shouldn’t be smoking around your baby.” The first woman to speak exclaimed, “I just told you this!” and went on to explain that her young daughter developed asthma from secondhand smoke exposure. As she continued, the second woman, who was pushing the stroller, seemed to grow annoyed that I had approached them to impart my thoughts. I listened as the second woman explained that she knew that she should not be smoking around her child. During the course of the conversation, the woman pushing the stroller said she appreciated that, unlike others, I had approached them in a non-judgmental manner. When both women claimed that they wanted to quit smoking, I unsuccessfully raked my mind for the phone number that we learned during our clinical course. This service would provide advice about smoking cessation and could deliver free nicotine patches to the caller. Instead, all I could remember was the fact that children directly or indirectly exposed to cigarette smoking were at higher risk of developing recurrent ear infections and a slew of pulmonary problems. To try to connect with the child’s mother, I shared that I was a medical student and I had recently seen a child with recurrent ear infections likely due to smoking exposure. The two women acknowledged my statement and walked away. With their backs turned, one wished me well in my medical school studies. The cigarettes remained in both of their hands.
As I continued to my destination, I regretted my timing and wondered, had I turned back before the cigarettes were lit, could I have prevented the child from being exposed to smoke emanating from yet another cigarette? Moreover, I thought about my role as a student. Was I out of line to bring up the obvious to these strangers? Had I encouraged the women to smoke less and avoid further putting their children in harm’s way? On my stroll back to campus, I thought about the countless ads about nicotine addiction that I had passed this semester and the coincidentally of walking into these women as my class transitioned from the Brain and Behavior module, where we learned about addiction and nicotine’s action on the brain, to the Pulmonology module, where we learned about various smoking-induced lung diseases. Later, I looked up and memorized the contact information for the New York State service to help individuals quit smoking (1-866-NY-QUITS). I also stumbled upon a website operated by various national government services with the purpose of providing free information and services to aid in smoking cessation. Whether inside or outside of a hospital setting, I hope to guide people to these resources advocating for smoke free lives.