Class of 2020
Alexis del Vecchio
2018. For my fellow class of 2020-ers and me, the year of Step 1. The end of the academic years, the beginning of the clinical years. The end of student-ing, the beginning of real learning. It’s a tough transition to be sure, but a welcome one by all of us.
The rigors of M2 and the steep learning curve of M3 have brought with them their own highs and lows. Even outside of school, I know many of my classmates have experienced personal peaks and valleys ranging from having children to losing parents over these last couple of years. I always admired how these students have managed to soldier on and even excel in their education despite personal tragedy.
In 2017, I could hardly imagine myself in either of those groups. I couldn’t fathom losing a parent during school, and I was in awe at how some of my classmates were able to continue to function, much less keep it together enough to continue in the classroom. Neither could I imagine having a child during school and the demands that puts on your time and responsibility. I certainly couldn’t imagine both of those happening within four months of each other like they did to me in 2018.
My mother, Laurie Farley, was diagnosed with colon cancer in November of 2017 already with extensive metastases in her liver and lungs. She deteriorated rapidly and was homebound with two PleurX catheters to drain recurrent pleural effusions so she could breathe. They didn’t improve her breathing much, but they prevented it from worsening. My days for two weeks leading up to Step 1 were spent studying early in the morning, going over to my parents’ house and changing my mom’s drains, and attempting to study there to keep her company while my dad was at work. It wasn’t the ideal test prep schedule.
You can’t get through dark times without hope. Whether it’s your faith, as it is for my family and me, or a goal, or a person, you need a reason to keep fighting, even when you know it’s a losing battle. For my mother, her strongest hope was in her Christian faith. She knew that no matter how certain the outcome, she had a more certain reality waiting for her. That kept her head above water. She also had a reason for fighting as hard as she could to hold on to life: her first grandchild. One thing I discovered about my mom in the last few months was how irrationally happy the thought of being a grandmother made her. I figured that out early in January when my wife and I found out we were having a baby. I told my mom and dad by pretending I forgot to give them two of their Christmas presents, which turned out to be newborn onesies that said “Grandma’s favorite” on my mom’s and “Grandpa’s favorite” on my dad’s. Cheesy, but effective. I can only describe that night as one I cannot and will not forget.
We had a lot of heart-to-hearts about her fight. She would confide in me about how she didn’t think she would make it to see her grandchild born in September or her daughter married in December. She confided in me because I wouldn’t tell her all was going to end well and that she was going to see those people and events. I let her tell me her fears without sweeping them away with platitudes. I would still give her hope and encourage her to fight, but I didn’t lie to her. And she fought. The hope of seeing her first grandchild born and her daughter married kept her going as long as her body would let her, which turned out to be the early hours of May 10, 2018. She was admitted to the hospital on 4/28, two days before Step 1. This was the third time since she fell ill. Compartmentalization is the only way I can describe how I was able to leave town to take that test. I knew the moment I called 911 on 4/28 that that was likely the last time she’d leave her house. I knew this hospital stay was the real deal. But she wanted me to keep going in school.
I’ll always cherish that I got to tell her my son’s name before anyone else. My wife and I deliberated for months on a boy name. It was probably the last thing my mom ever heard from me. She was delirious for most of her last days, partially the illness, partially the medication. But I know she understood me when I told her his name: Owen Boone Farley. I know because she began to cry and repeat his name back to me. I told her we named him after her. Boone was her maiden name, and she had no male siblings to carry it on. After that moment it was difficult to tell if she understood much more. Shortly after that she was wheeled away to the ICU as her condition worsened. But she went knowing the name of her first grandchild.
All of this to say, 2018 was about as much of a mixed bag of emotion as one could get. I learned firsthand how my classmates were able to cope during tragedy and carry on. I know that for me it took a certain amount of denial. Denial doesn’t have to be unhealthy, as we can often think it to be. A baseline level of denial can get you through your day or your study session or your big test. If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s compartmentalization (just ask Liz). When we had our Christmas celebration this past year, we weren’t constantly talking about my mom’s illness. We all had it in the back of our minds, but letting it dominate our thinking and conversation wouldn’t do anyone any favors, least of all my mother. She just wanted things to be as they were. But, when my mom needed to vent her fears to me, I was present and honest.
That’s the key – to know when to let down those mental barriers. I needed them to get through school and Step 1. I still need them sometimes. I think about my mom every day. Mostly in the quiet times, like driving to the hospital in the darkness of an early morning. Those times I let myself feel sad and long to see my mom holding Owen and the massive smile she’d be wearing. I feel that sadness and I thank God for the great times I had with my mom and that I’ll get to tell Owen about his Lolli (the grandma name she picked out).
I guess I’m writing this to encourage anyone else going through a rough patch or tragedy. It is possible to go on. It takes a combination of knowing when to wall off fear and soldier on, and when to let those barriers come down and allow yourself to talk and feel sorrow. Of course, having a loving spouse and family and supportive friends is invaluable. Which also leads me to this bit of advice for those of you who know someone going through tragedy: there’s a time and a place for trying to sweep your friends problems under the rug and try to prop them up and tell them that it’s all going to be fine. I’ve found the most valuable way to be there for someone is to just be there for them and let them tell you how it hurts, and how much it sucks, and what they’re afraid of, without getting a response of “I’m sure it will work out,” or “That test will be negative,” or “I know this chemo will be the one.” I knew my mom didn’t stand much of a fighting chance. I didn’t know how long she had, but I knew she likely wouldn’t see me graduate from medical school. I needed to vent those thoughts to someone. That person is essential. For me, that person was my wife, Liz. I couldn’t have made it through the first half of 2018 without her, and I sure wouldn’t make it through the second half either. Thank you, Liz. Without you I would be graduating with the class of 2021, if at all (not that that would be a terrible thing, I’m sure you guys are great). Of course, everybody is different. We all have different ways of coping – some may prefer the endlessly positive if somewhat irrational support. The common denominator is to have someone there to lean on, whatever their comfort style. Life isn’t meant to be lived alone. And if you’re going through a rough time right now, find somebody to vent to. And then write a cathartic blog post.
I’m native Greenvillian and I don’t plan on going anywhere else anytime soon. Grew up here, met my wife in high school and got married between junior and senior of Bob Jones University where I graduated in 2016 with a pre-med degree. Currently trying to balance school, wife, friends, and a newborn, and failing miserably. I enjoy strolling through downtown Greenville and Traveler’s Rest with my wife Liz, and enjoying our endless bounty of amazing restaurants.
Copyright 2014 USC School of Medicine Greenville