Years ago, I had a life-altering experience that would profoundly affect my approach to health care and ultimately lead to developing “The Art of Human Care.”
Though it took place before I became a doctor — before I was even accepted to medical school — this experience helped me embrace the mind-body-spirit connection that informs my practice every day.
As a college junior, I boarded a plane for Maryland, where I was scheduled for an early-admission interview at the esteemed Johns Hopkins Medical School. I was seated on the plane next to a woman with a very productive cough. Though she was a pleasant person, I wasn’t so pleased to inhale the air around her as she continually coughed.
I made it to Baltimore, Maryland in good spirits, and the interview went exceptionally well, (or so I thought). But soon after my return to New York, I experienced flu-like symptoms: fever, cramps and a pounding headache. Despite warm May weather, I was drinking hot tea and wrapping myself in a blanket. Within days I was bed-ridden, holed up in my single dorm room with excruciating body pain and massive headache. I struggled through a physics exam before finally making a visit to the campus infirmary.
A Turn for the Worse
The infirmary staff diagnosed me with a stomach virus, provided a bottle of penicillin and instructions to drink plenty of fluids. I stocked up on beverages and returned to my dorm room in hopes of a speedy recovery. But things only got worse. My fever and headache intensified, and I couldn’t keep any of the fluids down. Too weak to use the phone, I spent hours lying half-conscious in my bed, delirious with fever and haunted by disturbing dreams of my own death.
Eventually one of my fraternity brothers came pounding on my door looking for me. I was nearly comatose and barely able to whisper, let alone cry out for help. Rightfully concerned, they broke into the room and realized I needed urgent medical attention. I remember being carried out of the dorm and into a van, falling in and out of consciousness as nurses and doctors worked to keep me awake. Somehow, amid all this pain and chaos, my mind kept returning to my Johns Hopkins interview and my desperate desire to become a doctor myself.
What had been diagnosed as a simple stomach virus turned out to be a grave infection. I was placed in isolation with tubes running in and out of every orifice of my body. I remember seeing doctors in masks: “You are very sick,” one said. And outside the windows of the hospital room I could see my mother’s face. She had flown in from Brooklyn, New York. I knew things were serious. After several days in the ICU and several more as a hospital inpatient, I was finally discharged. Partial deafness and occasional seizures served as poignant reminders of my ordeal.
Just before my release from the hospital, the doctor who had admitted me came by to visit. He learned I was an aspiring medical student, and that I was determined to get well in hopes of attending Johns Hopkins. He handed me a thick medical textbook and instructed me to look up bacterial meningitis. Upon reading the facts … I realized how truly lucky I was to be alive.
Seeing the Connection
My near-death ordeal taught me how the mind, body, and spirit function together to keep us alive. It was my drive to become a doctor and my desire to attend Hopkins that kept my mind focused. A strong faith and divine grace fueled my spirit and kept my body alive in that hospital room. As a medical student, I learned little about the spirit, and much about how the elements of mind and body function separately, but my intellectual and spiritual drive to become a healer remain always close at hand and provide unique perspective.