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My most indelible memory as a doctor

September 2011

A physician’s life is forged by indelible memories that define our profession. We all remember our first cadaver and the smell of formaldehyde. We all recall the first time we witnessed trauma and resuscitation. We know the first time we delivered a terrible diagnosis to someone old–or worse, someone who could just have easily have been us.

Your most vivid memory might be the time you gave someone good news or delivered a baby or made an obscure diagnosis that no one else could make. Many of my most vivid memories have been of the emotional bonds I’ve made with family members as I help them make the decision that it is time to let a loved one go.

But whether I practice for one more day or 30 more years, I’ll always know the answer to that singular question, “What is your most unforgettable memory as a physician?”

I was in an ICU outside of Chicago early on a Tuesday morning. At the time, I was an “experienced” hospitalist, having practiced just over a year in my first job.

I was in the room of an elderly woman who was intubated, sedated and completely unaware of the TV in her room that was perpetually on. I was performing an exam when I was distracted by a commotion outside of the room.

The nurses were scrambling, but not to a room of a crashing patient, which was the norm. Something was unusual, and they were all rushing into the break room.

At that hour, the television was usually set to a talk show to be followed by Jerry Springer and his ilk. I often found that a brief dose of crazy as I went in and out of rooms was a healthy distraction when rounding in the unit.

But not today. I will never forget looking up from the patient’s bedside and seeing the words “Breaking News” and then the live shot of the Twin Towers. One with smoke gushing out of it. The images created a physical and emotional paralysis that kept me frozen in that room. Then the next tower. Then all the rest.

My most indelible memory as a physician was what many still recall as the most surreal day in their life. I struggled to complete rounds. Some patients were desperate to be discharged, but I remember that most wanted to stay even if their illness had relented, perhaps believing the hospital was somehow a safe haven beyond it medical capacity.

I spent most of the rest of that day in our office with my colleagues, not believing our eyes. Speaking to the surreal nature of the day, I still remember the taste of the banana bread that one colleague’s partner had baked for the office. It became a comfort food as the terrible events continued to unfold.

Ten years later, like a flash of lighting, there are so many reflections in the wake of those first images. So much that is deeply personal and important to each one of us who are old enough to remember that day. For those directly affected by the loss of a loved one, either on 9/11 or in the conflicts that ensued, they have infinitely, inconceivably more to reflect upon.

As my wife prepares to give the freshman assembly speech to the incoming Princeton University class of 2015 on 9/11/11, I can’t help but think about a generation who was just 8 years old at the time of the attack. They and others who are just beginning their undergraduate careers are among the last who will actually have memories of that day. They’ll soon be followed by those who will know 9/11 only as a remote historical event to be watched on YouTube.

I can only hope and pray that the future doctors who will be sitting in that auditorium, and auditoriums across the country, will never have a similar, indefinably horrific event, one that is completely external (and antithetical) to the act of being a physician, become forever their most profound memory as a doctor.

And while my memory remains indelible, I also hope and pray that 10 years have helped heal the wounds of those who were so personally affected on that tragic day.