One evening around midnight, I received a call from the ICU team about a patient I brought up from surgery a few hours before.
The patient, who had been doing well when I left, now was bleeding heavily and had unstable blood pressure.
I jumped out of bed and rushed in to work, knowing what such a sudden change could mean.
Sure enough, my patient needed to go back to the operating room.
As we always do, I called the patient’s family to update them on the situation. After explaining the urgency of the situation, I asked whether they had any questions. After a moment of silence, I heard crying over the phone.
“Is it going to be OK?” came the inevitable question.
I took several deep breaths. I, too, was nervous and deeply concerned. Once I collected myself, I replied in the most reassuring way I knew: “It’s going to be OK.”
Since starting my cardiac surgery residency two years ago, I have been asked many times why I write about my life in medicine.
I used to have trouble answering this question. Most people in medicine do not view the kind of narrative or reflection-based writing I do as consistent with science. It’s inexact and often emotional, contrary to the rigorous, quantitative, scientific method behind medical journal reports. Would anyone change the way they practice as a result of reading my stories? Might patients be able to better understand what happens in the hospital? There isn’t an easy way to measure its impact.
But the more time that passes, the more important writing becomes to me.
I write about experiences in medicine not only because I want to, but also because I need to. The reasons are personal, not professional. Writing is one of the most therapeutic exercises for my mental and physical well-being at a notoriously stressful point in medical training.
Most nights, I come home carrying a weight, whether it be frustration, disappointment, a sense of being lost, or just sheer stress.
And often, before I have an opportunity to process these experiences, I must return to work.
Writing is how I create clarity and a sense of direction in my life as I repeatedly sink into and emerge from complex experiences. It gives me a chance to formulate and steer my own development instead of allowing my experiences to dictate my growth. Often, in reflecting on my experiences through writing, it can change the way I think or behave for the better going forward.
Writing helps me keep a positive philosophy and a broad worldview so that I can return to work each day believing in a good world, a just world, and the positive impact that even young trainees can have.
To readers, written articles may appear like conclusions. To me as a writer, they are reassuring thought processes, lessons, and mantras that I carry with me as I continue my journey.
When I was telling my patient’s family that everything was going to be OK, I now realize I needed to hear someone tell me the same thing. I couldn’t tell them this, but their loved one’s situation was fairly new to me. Hearing their question brought home to me in the most visceral way that it’s my job to do all I can to make things OK.
This patient’s story has a happy ending, including a successful procedure and a joyful homecoming. Experiencing the unexpected change in the patient’s condition, and working with my team to fix it, helped me grow as a doctor.
And the act of writing about the story helped me learn, too.
From time to time, I rely on the words that I write — words that require a kind of courage and self-reflection I can summon only on the written page — to find the reassurance to keep on moving forward.
Jason Han is a resident in cardiothoracic surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.