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When You’re In Medicine, Love Looks Different

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My dad was an anesthesiologist, so growing up things were a little different compared to the way my friends lived. Some ways were more subtle, like how our dust rags were leftover sterile towels from surgery, how we used hemostats to unclog hair from the drain, and how we were comfortable talking about body fluids at the dinner table. Other ways were more predictable because of his call schedule: he had to miss some games and recitals, we often held dinner until he arrived home around 8–9 p.m., and sometimes we didn't see him all weekend. Despite these differences, my childhood was similar to that of all my friends, and I was happy and well provided for, aside from one thing: a pencil box.

It was third grade, and everyone had one: a plastic pencil box. The top was teal, and the bottom was a pearly white. Both parts were sprinkled lightly with silver glitter. I needed one but unfortunately had a perfectly functional new pencil case purchased from Staples just months before. My very sensible mom would not be convinced to replace the pencil case even after my most desperate pleas. I remained envious of my friends and voiced my desires frequently.

Then one day my dad came home with a gift for me. 

It was a khaki, oblong, plastic box. Small holes dotted the top. My name, Teresa, was written with calligraphy across the top of the box with a rose delicately drawn next to it in chisel-tip Sharpie, which I could still smell. It wasn’t the one my friends had, but it was a pencil box, and that was enough to quiet my complaints for the rest of the year, when the trend inevitably changed to rolling backpacks. 

I didn’t think much of the pencil box after that, but as I began my own medical journey 15 years later, I did wonder how my dad seemed to have done it all: work 80 hours each week and still seem to be present in my life. Medicine was as everyone had said. I was missing everything — big events like weddings, funerals, birthdays, and holidays with family. I was bothered, possibly moreso, as I noticed all the small things I was missing too, like my sister’s progression through her pregnancy and weekend outings with my friends. I did my best to show up when I could for however long that I could, but when I did, I was tired and stressed. It felt like it was never enough, especially compared to how much others showed up for me. My inadequacy in my relationships would remain a constant distraction in the back of my mind, and as residency approached, I wondered how I would manage.

Around October of my fourth year of medical school, I was on an elective hundreds of miles from home. I stood at the back of an OR daydreaming about the completion of my rotation and eventual reunion with my friends and family. The surgeon turned to ask the scrub tech for a new kit. I returned my attention to the obstructed view of ongoing laparoscopic surgery and watched the scrub tech unwrap what I then realized was not a pencil box, but a sterilizing box.

The anesthesiologist on this case was, as always, working unseen behind the curtain. I began to surmise what occupied their mind as they managed the anesthesia for a stable, healthy patient in an elective surgery. I wondered which important things and people these long OR days kept them from. I imagined what gifts they might be MacGyvering for their loved ones to make up for being absent. I pictured my dad sneaking to retrieve the old sterilizing box and returning behind the curtain to transform it into a one-of-a-kind pencil box. It made me smile to imagine, and I resisted the temptation to reach for my phone and message him.

I had about 60 unread texts on my phone at that point. The preceding weeks and months of medical school had left me little time to think of much more than getting myself through each day, let alone acknowledge or respond to others. So the fact that 15 years ago amid his busy schedule he had thought of me. That he remembered my silly request. That he made something of it. I suddenly realized what a gift that pencil box really was.

I remember that pencil box now and again as I progress through residency. I’ve lived and learned the practice of delayed gratification, and so has my family. Still, my anxieties always catch up to me: I showed up after my sixth 13-hour shift in a row; will they care if I leave early to rest? I flew in for the big birthday; will it make up for being absent on the ordinary days? I know my coresidents struggle similarly. The pencil box reminds me that even though our best efforts may fall short of our tall personal expectations, even our smallest efforts will have a lasting impact, even if it’s not recognized until 15 years later in the corner of a cold OR.

What's a way you have had love shown to you or that you have shown love through a little act?

Dr. Teresa Samson is a second-year internal medicine resident in San Antonio, TX. In her spare time, you'll find her sitting in the sunny corners of the hospital, FaceTiming with her family, and enjoying any excuse to be outdoors. You can follow her journey on Instagram at @residentdoctor_t. Dr. Samson is a 2023–2024 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Illustration by April Brust

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