I love to say I grew up in the ED. My mother has been an ED nurse at a level one trauma center for 28 years. Ever since I was a little girl, I heard about the colleagues that kept my mom coming back every day, the physicians that came and went, and many patients’ stories. I’ve listened to her triumph with the resident that secured his first intubation. And I’ve watched her cry over the loss of a patient she coded for 45 minutes.
My mom was adamant that if I wanted a career in medicine, I was to forge my own path. She pushed me to develop my own reputation, my own work ethic. When I chose to pursue medical school, she started to talk about specific residents she worked with and admired.
I started hearing about Dr. A when I was a sophomore in college. She was a few months into her intern year, and my mom would say how Dr. A reminded her of me. “She’s the kind of resident I see you being in a few years. She’s smart, she has personality, and most importantly, she impressed this old ER nurse.” She made my mom so proud, something I strive to do every day. I had a role model before I even met her.
I was fortunate to rotate in the same hospital network for my third and fourth years in medical school. I was based at a community hospital, close to the level one trauma center where I spent my childhood. When I found out where I was rotating, I also discovered that Dr. A was a new attending in the ED. I was about to learn from the doctor my mother spent years complimenting — the person my mom had asked me to emulate. I patiently completed my third year, and excitedly began my ED rotation as a fourth year. I showed up to my first shift, Dr. A looked at me for a bit, smiled, and said, “Glad you’re here. Your mom taught me a lot.”
We went about the day, seeing an endless flow of patients. After seeing a few patients, I returned to the nurse’s station to focus on perfecting my HPIs and plans. I simultaneously looked her way and started to present, but the expression on her face made me stop mid-sentence. She was concentrating, her forehead furrowed together while on the phone with the medics. She wrote something so quickly in her notebook that I wondered how she was going to go back and read what she wrote.
She looked at me and said, “We have a baby in cardiac arrest coming in. Three minutes. Let’s go.” I obediently followed her into the resuscitation room. She was calm, collected, and asked for items she needed as nurses and techs flowed in the room to prepare for what we were about to witness. As most medical students do, I timidly made my way to the corner, desperately trying to stay out of the way. While grabbing the intubation equipment, intraosseous infusion kit, and meds, Dr. A gently grasped my arm, pulled me toward her, and said, “You’re with me because I want you to see this.”
As the medics rolled the baby in, I silently reminded myself to keep my emotions in check. I applied for internal medicine so I wouldn’t have to participate in pediatric codes. Yet, here I was, standing at the head of the bed, ready to bag a baby.
We swiftly transferred him to the gurney, began our resuscitation, and listened to his mom and grandma plead with us to start his heart again. I dragged the glidescope over with my foot and watched Dr. A intubate with the same calmness she had when she let me intubate a patient just about an hour before. She put my hand over hers so I could feel the motion as she successfully secured the airway. We continued working our way through ACLS, and Dr. A was asked to talk with the family.
Without missing a beat, she looked at me and said, “There’s not much more I can do.” I watched her take a deep breath, and I silently took one with her.
She took me with her to explain to the family how hard we were working. I stood there, in awe of the fact that I was even participating in this conversation. We worked until the baby’s father arrived. Dr. A stopped me during my compression rounds for a rhythm check. Hearing the deafening sound of the flat line, I felt my eyes brim with tears and a lump in my throat form.
“We’re done,” said Dr. A.
The room cleared as the parents made their way to the bed. I watched Dr. A wipe her own tears — in awe of having had the privilege of being in that room.
I will be forever indebted to Dr. A for the lessons she taught me. She involved me in every clinical decision. She made sure she had room to teach and work. She guided me, explaining what she was doing, and why. She, quite literally, held my hand through one of the most difficult situations any physician has to navigate.
Perhaps, most importantly, and probably without her knowing, she taught me how to empathize with a family during their worst nightmare. Every day, Dr. A went above and beyond in her mentorship to me since that shift. She pushed me to think outside the box, challenged my plans, and expected me to show up being the best I can be.
As I spoke to my mom about being a part of this code, she smiled through her tears and said, “And to think I thought I couldn’t be prouder of her.” No worries, Mom. Your student doctor is being taught by her hero.
Hannah Todorowski is a fourth year medical student currently residing in Pittsburgh, PA. She is in the midst of interview season and plans to pursue an internal medicine residency.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz