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I Misdiagnosed My Mother and Was So Glad I Was Wrong.

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

This is part of the Medical Humanities series on Op-Med, which showcases creative work by Doximity members. Do you have a creative work related to your medical practice that you’d like to share? Send it to us here.

The Neck of the Giraffe 

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. The faint, rhythmic sound of the gold clock near the top of the stairs sounds harsh and abrasive in the heavy silence that surrounds me. 

The house is empty. I should get ready, but I cannot move. 

Mom and Dad have already left.

I should get ready. Traffic is going to be bad. Traffic is always bad. I cannot move. 

The appointment is at 9:30. It’s only 9:15. I should really get up. I don’t want to be late to class. 

“Any updates?” I type out a text. I don’t send it. It’s not 9:30 yet. 

Leukoplakia. Proliferative verrucous leukoplakia. One of the worst types of malignant mouth cancer one can have. The words I spent hours searching last night rattle in my skull. My classes only aided in pushing my hysteria further off the cliff, tipping the scale of my sanity. My eyes burn. I’m probably tired.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. I check my phone again: 9:18. 

I walk into the study. It is spotless as usual. The sun seeps through the windows and casts a glare on the frames on the wall. Three gold frames line up perfectly. One of her medical board certifications inside each.

I walk into her room. The bed is made, like always.

I stand in the same spot I did last night: hand grasping the door handle, careful not to let out a squeak. I listened for her breaths but this time, I cannot not hear it. 

My throat closes up. My temples throb. For the first time in a long time, I feel so unabashedly young.

 I want to run over and shake her awake. 

Lay on her pillow, have it soak up the wet tears. Have her soak up my fears. Have her tell me that she’ll take care of it.

She always takes care of it. 

This time, she’s scared.

My dad used to joke: she has a pain tolerance I’ve never seen before; explains why she can be brutally practical. It’s not funny anymore; the irony tastes metallic in my mouth.

I should have gone with them. 

It had spread to the other side of her mouth within a week. The white patches looked like an obvious sign of something sinister. It’s 9:20. 

Last week, I complained. The world owed me. I had an acne flare up. I missed a quiz. Traffic was bad. I had a bad week.

Last week, I snapped at her. She doesn’t understand. It’s hard being a student. She’s been a doctor too long. She’s too perfect. Not all of us can be perfect.

I forgot she came from war. Forgot the time she heard a bomb go off in the street and covered me with her own body.  Made it out before Iraq was swallowed whole. Still though, she didn’t understand. The world owed me. I had a bad week.

9:40. I pace. I’m already late. I should’ve just gone with them.

“Any updates?” This time I press send. “Doc is late,” He responds.

This time, he’s scared too. 

I can picture him there: putting his head in her lap. Her being the strong, practical rock she always was. My dad and I have always been emotional — rash even — compared to her. 

When I was a little girl, she would tell me an Arabic proverb: “ليت رقبتي كرقبة البعي” 

“May your neck be as long as a giraffe's so that the words will take time to come out.” 

“What is going to happen?” He asks without expecting an answer. 

“There would be options,” she said: a couple of laser treatments, skin grafts, tooth removal. 

No. This shouldn’t happen like this. Doctors don’t get sick like this. 

I pace. Each step matches up with a tick. My room is a mess. I snapped at her because she doesn’t like the mess. She doesn’t understand. The nuisances of last week seem inconsequentially far away. I wish I didn’t snap. 

10:05 Tick. Tick. Ti — the phone rings. My knees nearly buckle and I have to hold onto the kitchen island. “Hello,” I mouth the words but nothing comes out, my throat is closed. He would not call if it wasn’t serious. 

“It’s only inflammation, it’s benign.” My knees fully buckle, I’m on the floor. I cannot see through my tears. I am thankful. I am thankful. 

I am thankful.

What was your inspiration for this narrative? Did other creative works, if any, influence your creation of this piece?

I like to reflect on my own life experiences in the extended role of the patient to remain grounded and attached to my intrinsic source of empathy in a world where health care sometimes feels unyieldingly cold and systematic.

How long have you been writing creatively? What got you started?

I have been writing both poetry and prose as a hobby since I was in middle school. However, during my college years, I began to use writing as an outlet for understanding and reflection.

Why did you choose to write? What interests you about it?

I believe introspection in medicine — whether it's through poetry, prose, or journaling — is necessary for continued fulfillment and avoidance of burnout in medicine.

How does this submission relate to your medical practice?

A piece written about the intersection of introspection, vulnerability, invincibility, and thankfulness for health. “The Neck of the Giraffe” describes what occurs when health care workers’ roles are suddenly reversed and they are thrust into the role of a patient, forced to face the heart-wrenching experience their patients face everyday.

May Ameri is an M.D. student at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. She is pursuing several humanities electives under her Medical Humanities Concentration. She is passionate about bridging the gap between medicine, policy, and advocacy. As an immigrant and an Albert Schweitzer Fellow, Ameri encountered the complex health disparities that affect minorities. Her goal is to work towards reducing health disparities faced by her local immigrant and refugee community. She hopes to become a policy advisor on issues of health care disparities and serve as a strong advocate for marginalized patients.

Image: Artur Debat / gettyimages

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