One morning in the middle of our 82 day stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), I was hit with some pretty difficult news.
The previous twenty four hours had been rough for my very preterm daughter. Her monitor alarms became more frequent, her body more lethargic and her skin tone more ashen. Tess was definitely not herself.
As the care team encircled her bedspace at rounds that day, the neonatologist's words hung in the air like lead balloons. Heart. Valve. Surgery.
Each syllable felt like a blow to my head with a cast iron skillet. As I watched her tiny wire covered body struggle to breathe, I felt helpless. I could do nothing to protect her. I caressed her hand, which was the size of my fingertip, and held my breath.
We had struggled through many other difficult moments over the past many weeks during our NICU roller coaster ride but somehow the possibility of surgery on her wee heart was paralizing.
After the team left the unit, a first year resident returned to her isolette to do a routine exam. He asked all the standard case history questions I’d heard a hundred times before. And while he thumbed through her chart he came across my “advanced maternal age”. A term by the way, that no woman ever wants to be labeled with.
The young doc and I somehow got to talking about his own mom and the day she learned of her pregnancy with his much younger sister. As a teenager, he sat down with her to discuss her trepedation. His words were honest and real. And I could fully relate as my two kids were almost the same spacing apart. And as he spoke of his close relationship with his little sister now, a sense of calm came over me. He had no idea he was doing it, but by being vulnerable, he was earning my trust.
When he left my daughter’s bedside, I exhaled for the first time in a long while.
The next morning at rounds I searched the scrum of clinicians for his kind young face. It gave me comfort to study his body language while each possible care option was discussed. Jonas Salk, Banting and Best and Dr. Spock himself could have been standing next to this first year resident, and I still would have deferred to this fella. And I didn’t even know his name.
During the rest of our NICU stay, I never saw him again. He had moved on in his rotation. But I never forgot how he made me feel that day.
About a year later, I was speaking to a group of first year NICU residents at a training session at another hospital. I recounted the story of this “unknown first year resident “ and how impactful our conversation had been and how I never got the chance to thank him. My talk was running overtime, so another group of second year residents filed into the back of the training space.
And there he was. The room erupted in laughter when I yelled out "That's him, that's the guy!"
I finally got my chance to thank him.
The best human connections happen when they are not forced. Being open, present, empathetic and actively listening plays a major part in connecting, as does being willing to reveal your authentic self. Trust, no matter what the circumstance, is an invaluable asset when it is earned authetically, a young doctor named Mohammad once taught me that.