Learning

Bruce H. Campbell, MD
bcampbell@mcw.edu

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“We do not exist for ourselves.”
-Thomas Merton

 

The library hums quietly as medical students pore over textbooks and lecture notes, oblivious to distractions. Two lean together across a table to confer about the materials in front of them. The librarian reclines in his chair, stretches, then resumes his work. A student digs in her backpack and retrieves a textbook and a pile of handouts. She arranges her notes carefully and rests her elbows on the table, pressing her fingertips firmly into her forehead near the hairline. Before long, she is reading intently. No one notices the young woman nearby, half-sitting on a stool at an open computer terminal.

She stares at the computer screen, scanning page after page. She scrolls through documents, stopping abruptly to copy intently into one of the wire-bound spiral notebooks on the counter in front of her then pulls a highlighter out of the pocket of her jeans to mark what she has written. She pushes her unruly shoulder-length brown hair away from her face, hooking her little finger around a few strands plastered to the corner of her mouth, then retrieves the elastic band from her wrist to gather her hair into a ponytail. Her eyes rarely leave the screen. Her right hand scurries alternately from the notebook to the keyboard to the mouse.  

Her left hand gently and methodically pushes and pulls the handle of a worn, oversized child stroller. A pre-adolescent girl lays propped in the seat, her head buffered by an array of pillows and foam. The girl wears a pink pullover sweatshirt and pants, ankle socks, and unscuffed white shoes. A drop of saliva collects on her lips. A silastic tube pokes out from below her shirt. Her thin, neatly trimmed auburn hair frames her face and her unfocused eyes gaze at the ceiling from below the clean line of her bangs.

The stroller moves back-and-forth. The girl’s hand, suspended in mid-air above her chest, sways limply in rhythm with the stroller. Her breathing is steady and quiet. The woman scans the computer screen and types with one hand.  

Suddenly, the girl cries out. Her face contorts and her arm flails to the side. She emits a grunting, forlorn, agonized squeal followed by a series of weak, uncontrolled gasps. The librarian peers over his reading glasses. The woman pulls the stroller close, cocking her head as she looks inside. A stuffed animal kitten has toppled and now leans against the girl’s leg. The woman gently rights the animal and sets it back in place. She quietly speaks to the girl as she smoothes her hair. “Everything’s okay, sweetie,” she says. “Mommy’s here. Look how pretty you are.” She presses a washcloth against the corner of the girl’s mouth. The girl’s breathing settles.

The medical student has looked up from her notes at the sound of the child. Her chin rests on the palm of her hand as she watches. The woman’s attention has shifted back to the computer screen and she rolls the stroller back-and-forth with her foot. She sets aside one notebook and presses the cover shut. She opens another notebook, grasps her pen, and stares at the screen.

The expressionless child blinks, arm again swaying with the movement. The student inhales and rubs her eyes. She clears her throat and repositions the notes, then runs her finger down the page until she finds her place and resumes her studies.

 

About the Author

  • Bruce H. Campbell is a Head and Neck Cancer Surgeon at the Medical College of Wisconsin, holding faculty appointments in the Department of Otolaryngology and the Institute for Health and Society (Bioethics and Medical Humanities). He has published reflective essays in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the Journal of Clinical Oncology, and a humor piece in The Examined Life: A Literary Journal of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. He blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror (www.froedtert.com/reflections). He is grateful to his roundtable group at Red Bird – Red Oak Writing in Milwaukee, WI.

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    Published: November 6, 2013