Dispatches

Ad Infinitum

Margaret Nowaczyk

Does throwing up prove I wasn't meant to be a doctor?

Once, as an intern, I pronounced four people dead in twenty-four hours; by four o’clock in the morning, I was ready to go home to my husband of six months, but I had to stay until the morning report. The sparrows were rioting outside my call room window that June morning.

Three years later, as a senior pediatric resident, I had to finger extract stone-hard feces from the rectum of a screaming five-year-old boy. The stool clanged as it hit the metal bedpan.

Before that, as a junior, on an afternoon after being up all night, barely in control of my senses, I bent a spinal-tap needle inside a four-year-old boy who squirmed the wrong way during the lumbar puncture. Afterward, I shook the warped needle in front of his nose and said: “See what you have done?!” The nurses reported me and I was almost expelled from my coveted pediatric residency.

Back in the mid-eighties, as a hospital volunteer, I lost my lunch while watching a percutaneous needle biopsy of a coin lesion of the lung through a window in the fluoroscopy suite. I did not know what a biopsy was. I did not know about the lethal prognosis of a coin lesion, and if I did, I wouldn’t have cared. I only worried whether throwing up in the hallway proved I wasn’t meant to be a doctor.

About the same time, I stood on the curb of a busy downtown street outside a teaching hospital and watched as doctors—I was sure they were doctors, they must have been doctors, who else could have done this—talked a white-haired woman in a hospital gown down from the ledge of an eighth-floor window of what I later learned was the hospital library. I was soon to spend nights and days studying there.

One day in the operating room, finally a medical student, I stared in awe at the pink-petalled flowers of human tissue blossoming in the mass of a collapsed grey-brown lung as it was reinflated during a thoracotomy. It was magical. Later, at home, I wanted to write a poem about it, but I did not know how.

Another time, while on duty in the emergency department, I saw a seventeen-year-old girl’s left pupil dilate and her left eye deviate down and outward, and I knew then and there that an artery inside her brain had just hemorrhaged and was killing her. I wanted to crack open her skull to relieve the pressure, to let the blood out, to allow the brainstem to spring back to its normal shape and consistency, but I called the cardiac arrest code instead and the cardiac arrest team pushed me aside as they set to work.

And then there was the time when, as a young consultant geneticist, I was too tired to go to the hospital in the middle of the night because my colicky newborn son had been keeping me awake for ten months, and the patient, an eleven-year-old girl with a metabolic liver disease, died before I saw her. At the funeral, her parents thanked me for the wonderful care that they thought I had provided.

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Margaret Nowaczyk

Margaret Nowaczyk is a pediatric geneticist and writer who lives in Hamilton, ON. Her memoir Chasing Zebras was published in 2021. “Metanoias” is part of her forthcoming collection of essays from Wolsak & Wynn.


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