One week after I took Step 1, I found myself frustrated with my mother. The reason? Not completely clear. We were enjoying a wonderful vacation together; I was recuperating from several long weeks of dedicated studying, while she was enjoying a much-deserved break from caring for her own sick mother. Perhaps she made a comment that irritated me, or perhaps I was tired or agitated by some unrelated circumstance. In any case, I snapped at her. But we are close, and she is kind. The moment passed quickly, and soon we had both moved on.
If I am being honest, such exchanges are neither new nor uncommon. Perhaps you can relate. But recently they have stung with a fresh burn of guilt. I am training to be a doctor, I think to myself. I’m supposed to be more understanding. I should be gentle. But in many instances, this is not the case. Instead, I simmer. Sometimes I text while she is talking or get impatient when a story moves too slowly. I tell myself that this is different, that I would be more forgiving with a patient, as if that might somehow soothe the burn.
It seems remarkable that over a year has passed since we first donned our white coats and solemnly, anxiously pledged to put our patients first. In the moments and months afterwards, a sense of responsibility enveloped me. I began preparing to be a healer, spending afternoons at an outpatient clinic with men and women whose lives were textured and crooked and rich. Left alone in a room with a patient, I coveted the connection between us. I listened attentively to their concerns; I was genuinely interested in their pain and understanding of their shortcomings. In that space, I felt compassionate and kind. Some weeks, my preceptor would knock softly on the door of the exam room when my interview had dragged on too long. I would apologize half-heartedly, excited by the stories that spilled out of my patients and unconcerned by the time it took to tell them.
But in the evenings, when my short white coat hung in the closet or lay crumpled in the car, I felt my patience dwindle. I woke early and stayed up late, with books spread across my desk and an endless list of things to do. I know there were nights when I did not pick up the phone or respond to emails and felt agitated by the pull of people trying to help. There were undoubtedly times when those closest to me felt that I had no time for them.
As the weeks ahead melt into months and months morph into years, we will find ourselves surrounded by a growing number of friends and family members. Meanwhile, our patient panels will multiply. Our minds will grow — our spirits, likewise. But we will also have longer days and larger burdens, and there may be times when compassion flows out of us like thick honey rather than sweet tea. In the sacred space behind a closed clinic door, perhaps we will be gentle. But when we return home, our polished patience may become tarnished; it will be easy for our soft side to grow a sharp and jagged edge. It will be our families and friends who sustain the wounds.
In many ways, it is a grave mistake to compare parents to patients. They are, importantly, deeply distinct. We have different honors and obligations, and the capacity for diverse triumphs and disappointments. And though we may occasionally snap and ask to be forgiven, may we also remember the sacredness that exists behind the closed doors of a home, not just a clinic room.