Alexandra Park | August 6, 2018
“They may be gone, but I’m no less a woman,” she said, chuckling, as I adjusted her hospital gown.
The woman was a double-mastectomy patient, plump and elderly, whose manifold wrinkles and deep laugh lines betrayed her age and her good humor. Her hair was a mass of short coils, dyed black, and her lips formed a bright, fuchsia smile that contrasted starkly with the rest of her face, which was the color and texture of a hazelnut. Where her breasts should have been, there were two small mounds of flesh, each transversed by a straight line extending from the underarm toward the heart like a pale path across a smooth, brown hill.
It was hospital policy to monitor mastectomy patients for at least five years after surgery, and today’s visit marked this woman’s sixth year. She had become unbothered by the process of disrobing and having her body squeezed and prodded –– so much so that she made easy conversation with the staff in the room, and made no objection to the doctor telling me to do the checkup in his place, despite my glaringly obvious status as a young foreigner.
My tongue stumbled as I explained to her in halting Spanish that I was an undergraduate student from the United States shadowing doctors at this hospital, and that I lacked the formal training for a procedure like this one. She nodded in understanding, an amused matronly expression on her face, then took my hand, placed it over one of her scars and moved it in a circular, kneading motion. She explained that the motion would allow me to feel for differences in tissue texture. Any hard lumps were signs of a potential tumor. Today everything was soft, which meant she was healthy. Shaken by the role reversal that had taken place, I thanked her for teaching me. “My pleasure, doctor. How good it is that you are learning and practicing,” she replied.
Six weeks earlier, while I was studying for my organic chemistry final exam, I had sworn that I would use my fall semester abroad to decide whether I would continue studying medicine. My abysmal grades in the subject had put me back a semester, landing me back on campus for the summer. Because it was the only course I was taking, I started out with renewed vigor, but motivation quickly turned into doubt, and doubt into bitterness, as I realized that my problem with the subject was not, as I had hoped, the amount of time I was dedicating to it, but rather my inability to understand and retain the concepts.
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