Class of 2020
Alexis del Vecchio
Starting my third year of medical school brought a mix of emotions: eagerness, nervousness and wonder. Now halfway through, my heart has been touched and molded by some of the strongest and most resilient patients. One particular patient that had an everlasting impression and touched my heart was someone who I will call Mary.
Mary was a 52-year-old female with end stage metastatic breast cancer. She was suffering from recurrent pleural effusions and presented to the hospital in order to receive a Pleurx catheter to drain the fluid in her lungs. Her surgery was all planned: she would receive her catheter, be discharged and live out the remaining three to six months of her life with her daughters in peace without having to worry about coming back. Although this is what I thought, I was sadly mistaken. Once her surgery was over, we had difficulty extubating her properly. Our many attempts lead the patient to tell us that regardless of our success or failure that she wanted to die peacefully, despite any of her family’s wishes. She didn’t want to be in pain anymore, didn’t want to be a burden to her family anymore, didn’t want to live anymore.
You practice delivering bad news, you see it in TV shows, but nothing comes close to showing just how difficult it is until the day it becomes a stark reality.
I walked into the room with my resident, and we sat down and looked at Mary. Small tears slowly streaming down her face, we held her hand as we looked into her eyes and told her that we would be with her every step of the way. She simply looked at me and smiled. At that moment, I was overwhelmed with feelings of confusion and sadness. I was mad at medicine. We were supposed to help this woman, extend her time, let her spend a few more months with her daughters and grandchildren, give her a few more months of laughter and joy. Why couldn’t we have given her this? Why didn’t the procedure work? I watched her family cry around me. The emotions overwhelmed me, and I left the room in tears. For the last few months, I have struggled with this loss, not wanting nor knowing how to properly address my emotions. Instead, I suppressed my emotions, put on a smile, and moved on. That’s how to survive in medicine, right? You have to maintain a distance from your patients, right? Wrong. In the last two weeks, similar occurrences have hit my family which have made me finally come to acknowledge my emotions and realize that I couldn’t internalize the sadness of medicine anymore. For patients’ as well as self-care, I needed to come to terms that addressing not only the beauty of life but the sadness of death in medicine is a double-edged sword that is necessary for my growth as a future physician.
One of the events surrounded my grandmother. She lives in Bulgaria with most of my other family and is one of the strongest people I know. She has been the caregiver for so many people in our family. Unfortunately, over the last few years, on top of her being a long term type 2 diabetic, she has suffered a stroke and been in a car accident that has left her left hand paralyzed. Despite all odds, she has continued to fight through and stay strong. However, a few weeks ago, my grandmother fell and broke her hip. During her time in the hospital, she underwent multiple hypoglycemic episodes, got sepsis, and in addition, fell prey to another stroke. Hearing this news shattered my world. I have seen it happen to other patients, just as we all have or will, but when that patient now becomes your own family member, you truly do not understand how to react or accept the news. What could I do? She was so far away. Sure, my family and I Skype our family all the time, but how could I help her? My grandmother has since been discharged and although is in recovery, her functioning capacity has tremendously decreased. Despite this hurdle, she continues to fight every single day, and I am in awe of her strength. I am in awe of her resilience and the positivity she continues to showcase regardless of everything she has been through. I am in awe that with all of the negativity she continues to smile. I am in awe that despite her suffering, she continues to be a superwoman and one of my biggest heroes.
It’s hard to fathom that 2018 has almost come to an end. I look back on the roller coaster of this past year, and I cannot help but reflect. Reflect on the emotional, mental and physical challenges my classmates and myself have been through. I am so amazed at the courage, strength and immense perseverance my classmates continue to teach me. They continue to amaze me every single day with their positive outlook on life, even during the darkest of days. Along with my grandmother and amazing patients, I have learned that no matter how difficult life gets, reaching out in search of light, hope and positivity is one of the strongest things an individual can do. Life truly comes into perspective when you are faced with loss: whether that is the loss of a family member, a friend, a patient or a partner. However, love continues to help through the endless pain of suffering. The career we have chosen can often keep our minds constantly moving and we may forget to embrace the current moments, people and adventures of life. I have been guilty of that several times in my medical school career. I have taken for granted the family, friends, and the relationships I have had. I remember walking in downtown Greenville a few months ago and at the time someone telling me, “Teddy, I know you are physically here, but you don’t seem mentally here.” To me, this was an awakening and a lesson. Through weakness comes strength. Through difficult times comes character. Through sadness comes the light that will better allow me to carry my patients successfully through their darkest moments.
As the year comes to a close, I hope to learn from these moments in 2018 and continue into the future with a new perspective, a revitalized hope of humanity, and a strength that will serve me as well as those around me. Allowing oneself to be present, in the now, and continuing to love and strive to appreciate every single moment on this earth is a necessity, because every single second is truly a blessing.
I was born and raised in South Africa and moved to Greenville, SC with my parents when I was 10. My family is also Bulgarian and both countries have played an immense role in shaping me and allowing me to broaden my view of the world. I went to Clemson and graduated in 2016 with a B.S. degree in Microbiology-Biomedicine. In my free time you can catch me watching Friends on Netflix or spending time with friends and family at one of Greenville’s local restaurants.
Copyright 2014 USC School of Medicine Greenville