Her name was Callie.* She was four years old. She loved glitter and princesses and anything sparkly. She was affectionate and silly and I fell hard for her. She was a patient, my patient, on the pediatric oncology unit during my very first ward rotation intern year.
On my first day, I was as scared as any person can be, palms sweating, heart pounding, faced with these tiny, gravely ill little human beings. On this particular day, a new patient was coming in to the hospital to begin treatment: a four year old little girl with a new diagnosis of stage 4 neuroblastoma. Callie.
Callie’s body was being ravaged by neuroblastoma but inside where it counts, she was still just trying to be a little girl. On her good days, we would color together at her bedside and she would cover my hands and face with stickers. On her bad days, her mother would page me to her room so I could sit with her and rub her head through debilitating nausea and pain.
Over the next two years, whenever Callie was admitted to the hospital, the oncology team would let me know so I could sit with her as much as possible. Her hair fell out. She lost weight. She made me a sparkly princess crown. She mailed letters and coloring book pages to my home. She learned to read. She had a birthday, and then another one. In a way, we were growing up together, as I progressed through training and she through cancer treatment.
The day she died, I was working at a neighboring hospital. My pager went off and when I dialed the number, a friend doing her rotation in the pediatric ICU simply said, “Quinn, it’s Callie.” I looked at my attending and she said, “Just go.” I ran as fast as I could, for once not caring if I was drawing attention to myself as I begged my exhausted legs to go faster.
There is a hush in the air in an ICU when someone has just died. I remember how utterly quiet the unit was when I arrived, sweating and panting, sure that everyone could hear my heart pounding. I was too late.
The curtain had been pulled across the door frame and I parted it quietly, stepping inside. Callie was in her mother’s arms while she rocked her in a rocking chair. Soon the rest of her family would come in to say goodbye but somehow, I was granted several quiet moments with my little friend. When her mother was ready, Callie’s nurse and I helped move her over to the bed and we bathed her tiny body and changed her into a clean hospital gown. We cried together. I said goodbye. I fell apart.
The next day, I stayed home from work. I reconsidered my career choice. I cried all day. I worried my husband. I worried myself. But the day after that, I put back on my white coat, picked up my stethoscope, and went back to work. I had a job to do and there were more Callies out there, after all.
Callie is still with me, many years later. I kept the princess crown she made for me and the pictures we took together sitting on her hospital bed. She would be 18 years old now, off to college. My youngest child is now the age she was when she was diagnosed; soon all three of my children will have outlived her. I cannot look at my children without counting my blessings, without thinking of another mother out there who had to say goodbye. I cannot look at my patients without thinking of the little girl who loved me, never wanting me to miss out on her good days and never blaming me for her bad days, even though when we first met I was the one who ordered the very medications that made her feel awful.
I wish I could tell the parents who have lost children that we don't forget them. We mourn with them. We question every decision. We relive every moment. We think of them on holidays and special occasions. We fight against the easier path, which is to feel numb so we don’t have to feel the gut-wrenching pain of losing patients. Because ultimately, we want to feel with them. Medicine is a sacred art and we choose to put our hearts in the game. Their children walk beside us every day as we practice medicine, making us better at our jobs, helping us to connect more deeply. We carry their children as we carry on.
*All names and identifying information have been modified to protect patient privacy.
Quinn Bensi is a primary care pediatrician practicing in Fishers, IN. Her blog, Opening Up with Dr. Quinn Bensi, can be found at www.Quinnbensimd.com.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz