At the end of the day I consider myself fortunate. I remember being in college and about to graduate. I was certain of my next steps, my vocation clearly identified. I was to be a doctor, though back then my sight was set on being a pediatric cardiologist. But still, I knew what I wanted to be. Many of my friends did not know what to do next, what the future held. For some, the unknown was exciting; but for others, they just seemed lost.
Now ensconced in my career as an oncologist, I am satisfied. I love what I do and the opportunity to hold a patient’s hand through an unimagined diagnosis and walk that path with them is an honor and a privilege. I take my clinical responsibilities seriously, and in a leadership position I try to ensure our doctors don't cancel clinics without advanced notice; our patients and staff deserve that. But sometimes, life happens.
Once a week I see patients outside of Boston. During one such session, I received a call from my partner, Henry. Our son had had abdominal pain, but he became sick the night previously, throwing up and overall restless. I was worried he had had a viral gastroenteritis when I left for work that morning, but I had patients to see and other deadlines on my mind.
“Harrison and I are on our way to the emergency room,” Henry said. “I think he has appendicitis.”
Fortunately, I was about done with my morning clinic and had the afternoon free to do administrative work. I thought about what I had planned: a paper to finish and a new protocol that I had promised to send to my collaborators at the end of day. I also had another clinic scheduled the following day and had planned to review my list and prepare for that. But, when faced with an ill child, I did the first thing that came to my mind. I dropped everything and, as soon as I could, I headed to the hospital.
Harrison lay on a stretcher and was disconcertingly stoic. I asked if he was in pain and he nodded. “How bad is it?” I asked, showing him the Faces Pain scale. He pointed to a frown, indicating a pain score of 7-8. It threw me to think he was suffering so much but didn’t show it. His nurse came in then and took his vitals. He had a fever, and his heart rate was high. An ultrasound followed and the clinical diagnosis of acute appendicitis was made. A surgeon came in and we made plans for him to go the OR within the hour.
Fortunately, I knew that appendicitis was not a big deal— it was a common enough diagnosis, and with laparoscopic surgery, recovery was brief. The hospital stay was projected to be overnight and within 2 weeks he should be fully recovered. My partner was able to be with our son, and I knew I could go back to my work duties. After all, I had things to do.
But then I looked at Harry, scared and in pain. He looked at me too, and I could feel he needed me. He didn’t know what I knew—he was in a hospital, hearing the words “operating room” and “surgery” at the age of nine. Although he never cried, his eyes did well up. As I sat with him he silently reached for my hand and squeezed. He didn’t ask me to stay, but I knew what I had to do—I had to be with him. So, I put away my computer, told my colleagues of what was happening, and I cancelled my clinic. They understood how important my family is to me—a value we all openly share.
Surgery went off well, with no complications, and in no time at all, Harry was out of the OR, awake, and in the recovery room. That night, I took his sisters—his twin, Sophia, and their older sister, Isabelle—in to see him and we stayed until he was settled in his bed on the Pediatrics floor. Afterwards, I kissed him goodnight and took our daughters home while Henry stayed with Harry.
The next day I made my way to the hospital and found Harry sitting in a chair, watching TV—very much on his way back to baseline.
“How you doing, little man?” I asked.
“Okay, I guess,” he said. “My belly hurts. I was hungry and had breakfast. It was good.”
I smiled at him and he smiled back. Then unexpectedly, he started to well up with tears.
“Thanks for coming to visit me, Dad,” he said. I didn’t know what to say—it was as if he was thanking me for choosing him over my clinic. I had been seated on the bed so I motioned to him to come to me. He walked slowly over and sat on my lap. I kissed his forehead and said, “I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d want to be.” Afterwards, we went back to watching TV together until he was discharged.
I thought back to all that I had wanted so many years ago when I was in college. I had wanted to be doctor, even dreamed of being a faculty member in a great university, and someday, a professor of medicine. But, I also dreamed of being married and of being a parent, of having my own kids to love and to cherish. At this moment, it became quite clear which dream was more important to me—and he was here, in my arms.