Even though my family are immigrants from Mexico, I grew up like any other American child watching superhero cartoons. As a little girl, I would imagine being Wonder Woman, the Pink Power Ranger, or Rogue from X-men. I idolized not only the strength of these fictional women but the altruism they displayed to place the safety and wellbeing of others before themselves. These lessons were so ingrained in my psyche that I subconsciously incorporated them when choosing my career path.
Many people who enter medicine without personal or workforce exposure may have a savior complex where they only consider positive patient care outcomes. While working in medical research, I naively was one of these people and was not prepared for the other side of medicine. When I was a research assistant in pediatric infectious diseases, I witnessed an immunocompromised child with influenza and adenovirus on life support connected to a mechanical ventilator. A week later this child expired. I also, offered my shoulder to cry on and shielded the sight of a single mother who blamed herself who unknowingly infecting her 1-month-old with respiratory syncytial virus (because she thought she had a simple cold) and now her baby was being intubated in the emergency room. It tugged my heart strings as a researcher to be only able to extend a prayer and emotional support to patients and their families. Although, the most challenging moment, that no one is ever prepared for, was when my father passed away.
My father had suffered multiple strokes leaving paralysis of his right side and esophageal muscles. He had a gastrostomy tube for feeding and tracheostomy for breathing. The trach tube also made him very vulnerable to upper respiratory diseases because it is a straight highway to the lungs. Mycoplasma pneumoniae gained such access that caused him pneumoniae leading to sepsis and cardiac arrest. When my father’s pupils widened and his heart monitor was flat lining and sounding the alarm, all I could hear from the nurses, as I stepped aside from my father’s bedside in the intensive care unit pod, was. “1 mil Epi… start getting Ami ready”. After my father’s death, I realized the nurses were following the Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support procedures. Epi was Epinephrine and Ami was Amiodarone, both drugs used in cardiovascular emergencies while also providing breaths through the resuscitation bag attached to the trach. As difficult as it was to see my father resuscitated like this (twice), his heart finally gave out.
As mournful this last memory may be, I am still grateful to the nurses that tended to my father that day. Because they were well trained in resuscitation, I was able to say my final goodbyes before my father departed. This moment in my life was pivotal in my personal growth and decision to continue in medicine. In the death process I felt so helpless to help my father to not suffer. At the same time, I had to trust the medical staff in their knowledge and experience to know they did the best they could to help my father. But the most important point made by a palliative care nurse was learning to let go when a person no longer has quality of life.
I had never witnessed anyone die until the day my father did. When I recognized I had trouble with my grieving process I reached out for professional help. They helped build back up my mental fortitude to be able to encounter death in my future if I were to continue in medicine. Recently, I witnessed the death of my mother’s best friend in a nursing home and used the techniques learned from my therapist to respond appropriately in this situation. Mental health providers aided me with coming to terms and peace with this part of the human life cycle. This too is part of medicine.
You cannot completely emulate your favorite superhero because they exist in a world of fiction, and you exist in a world of reality. The reality is there will be times you save your patient’s life but there will be times you cannot save them as well. Through life experience and (unapologetic) professional help, I have accepted this as I move forward in becoming a physician assistant student. The conclusion and maxim I will bear in mind is that the goal of any healthcare provider is to try their best to guide and help their patients to the best quality of life outcome.