The First Time I Broke A Medical School Rule

Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz

When I came by later, after the clean-up, her husband was bent over the bed placing the socks on her feet. I had gotten them from the machine by the nursing station: beige, one-size-fits-all with rubber traction. I didn’t know if they’d be of any use at that point but I couldn’t think of anything else to bring after the birth — and death — of the premature twins. Neither one of us had experienced anything like this before.

The next day, I went to visit her upstairs in the postpartum section. It seemed an unfair placement after all that had happened. The room was split in two, with a family of four on the other side of the curtain. I walked by them to reach my patient; the juxtaposition was too much.

She spoke to me in her language and invited me in to her corner of the room. We talked about yesterday, a topic I wasn’t sure whether or how to bring up. “Thank you,” she said, “thank you for being there with me, for holding my hand.” There were no chairs so I asked if I could sit on the bed. She gestured to the space by her feet. She was still wearing the beige socks.

We were eye-to-eye now and for the first time I looked closely at her face. “I am Laura,” she said. “Tell me your name again.” Yesterday there had been no time for introductions.

Over the next half hour, we wove together our stories — my medical training, how she met her husband, springtime in New York with its mix of snow and sun. She was still in Mexico when she got married, living in a village by the ocean. There was a big wedding with an embroidered dress and an all-pink bouquet. It was 12 years ago; she had just celebrated an anniversary.

Laura passed her phone to me, encouraged me to flip through the photographs: first, a picture of her at the altar; next, a nephew’s christening; finally, a shot of her growing belly. I paused at this one. “The day I found out I was pregnant, it was the most wonderful day of my life. More than anything we wanted this. We tried for ten years to start a family. And then we found out it was twins. A miracle.”

Across the curtain, a baby whimpered, interrupting our conversation. Laura kept speaking through the cries, her voice growing louder. “My twins,” she said. “Mis angelitos — my little angels. Do you have children?” I said no, relieved not to add to her pain. “Someday?” she asked. “Yes, maybe someday.”

Her husband came in then, nodded at me and smiled. He was carrying two soda cups and a paper bag. He handed her the drink and the ice sloshed musically against the edge. I thought of the ice chips yesterday, before everything happened. “Here,” I said, pointing to my spot, “I’m going now.” I remembered the lessons of medical school: Show empathy, but maintain a professional relationship. Don’t sit on the hospital bed. Respect the patient’s space. I leaned over and hugged Laura, savoring the act of breaking a rule that no longer seemed relevant. I told her I’d never forget her or her angelitos.

Phoebe Prioleau, MD is a first-year pediatrics resident at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, OH. She graduated from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai with an MD/MPH. Prior to medical school, she pursued graduate studies in French Literature and Art History. She has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

More from Op-Med