I’ve had a number of formative experiences so far in my medical career. There are patients I will never forget—some because they were inspiring, and some because they were heartbreaking. The patients that died no matter how hard I worked to save them, and the ones that recovered after I had given up hope. The ones that truly appreciated even the smallest act of kindness, and the ones who screamed at everyone despite our best efforts. I have a letter of appreciation from the wife of a patient in medical school that I keep in my desk drawer and re-read periodically. But no single experience has done so much to prepare me for a career in pediatrics as being a parent.
My oldest daughter is seven years old now, but it doesn’t seem that long since the day she was born. My wife, Laura, had been impatiently awaiting her due date for several weeks. It was July in Charleston, SC, and apparently being pregnant is less pleasant in the heat. Early one morning—long before the sun came up, she woke me to tell me that she was in labor. We timed her contractions and decided it was time to go. We got in the car and I flew down I-26 with very little regard for the posted speed limit. I may have run a red light. Because that’s what you do when a baby’s coming (at least on TV). And I didn’t want that mess on my leather seats. (However you feel about home births, I think we can all agree that automobile births are less than ideal.)
We arrived (rather quickly) at the hospital, took the elevator to Labor and Delivery, and checked in. They did an exam…and said she wasn’t there yet. We were disappointed. Reluctantly, we drove back home—more carefully this time—to get some sleep (for me, anyway) and wait it out. A few hours later, the contractions were harder and more frequent. We returned to the hospital, and they confirmed that she was closer—but not close enough. They could admit her and we could wait all day, or she could walk around and try to make things happen faster.
Not being much for sitting around and waiting, we came up with a plan. Walking around downtown was out (because of the July thing), but the South Carolina Aquarium was nearby. And air-conditioned. We bought tickets and walked around looking at the fish. It was our last date before kids. And it was cut short around the shark tank when Laura discovered what contractions really felt like. As I lack a uterus, I’ll never know exactly what they feel like, but based on Laura’s response to my insensitive complaints, they are apparently even more painful than having your hand squeezed really hard.
We made our way out of the aquarium between contractions, 4 steps at a time. Everyone looked at me like I was a terrible husband for making her walk (obviously unaware that we had accomplished our joint mission). I left my laboring wife on the curb with an 80-something-year-old aquarium volunteer while I ran to get the car. We made it to the hospital again, and this time it was real. There was a lot of dilating, pushing, and hand-squeezing. Laura almost left me for the anesthesiologist that saved the day with an epidural. And then, there she was.
She was pinker than I thought she would be—which I now know is a good thing. She was about a foot and a half long and weighed somewhere between 6 and 9 pounds (I really can’t remember). She was adorable. And she changed everything. On the way home from the hospital, I stopped at every stop sign. Completely. Twice. Because you can’t be too careful. Since that moment, every decision I’ve made has been filtered through a lens that only a parent can understand. She’s taught me more than she’ll ever know: about life, love, myself, and Disney princesses. I’m a grown man that can sing along to every song from The Little Mermaid. I’ve seen Frozen…more than once, and I can name all of Tinkerbell’s fairy friends.
I’ve been overjoyed, frustrated, terrified, annoyed, and amused like only a parent can understand. My kids aren’t perfect, but neither am I, and I’ve learned from all of our mistakes. Some of my toughest moments as a doctor have been when terrible things happen to children that remind me of my own. I feel the pain their parents are going through and know how scared or heartbroken they must be. Tougher still is seeing children whose parents don’t care about them–who have been abused or neglected by the ones who should love them the most. That, I’ll never comprehend.
I’m reminded of a scene from the film We Were Soldiers, where a young officer who had recently become a father asked his commanding officer, “What do you think about being a soldier and a father?” The colonel replied, “I hope that being good at the one makes me better at the other.” There are plenty of good pediatricians who don’t have kids, and there are certainly millions of fantastic parents who aren’t pediatricians. But my girls have changed my life forever, and I don’t think I could do it without them.