Standing inside a brightly-colored superhero-themed examination room in an outpatient pediatric clinic just outside of Orlando, nostalgia hit me with such force that, for a brief moment, I contemplated balancing on the shoulder of a mother whose 4-month-old boy had been coughing and spitting up for what felt like an eternity to her. The room’s atmosphere was in total flux — the mother’s anxiety balanced by the pediatrician’s certainty, the baby’s grimace balanced by my endearing smile. He was an adorable child who had unknowingly caused his mother a great deal of distress. I saw myself in him.
Just as this infant will one day remember, my most formative years were marked with regular visits to the pediatrician’s office as well. I was too young to appreciate the value of a high-five and sticker at first, but before anyone could stop me, I had managed to sucker my way into amassing enough Disney and Hot Wheels stickers to cover my bed’s headboard at home. Front and back. It was a game to me. Sometimes the tears were fake, but an extra Dumbo sticker never hurt anyone.
I was just one hour into my first day of my pediatrics clerkship when everything began to fall into place. Today, the day I bore witness to the effort and sheer willpower that goes into raising and caring for a child, was also my mother’s birthday. I was only two weeks removed from my first delivery, and the novelty of it all, along with the ever-looming sense of indebtedness to our mothers for the damage their bodies take for us, had yet to wear off. But today’s experience, appointment after appointment, took that novelty even further and reminded me that there is no bond tighter, no love stronger, and no concern more sincere than what exists between mother and child.
We are trained deep into our first two years of medical school about countertransference, a phenomenon in which a physician forms an emotional reaction and projects it onto a patient, such as when a patient reminds the physician of a friend or loved one. There are vast ethical dilemmas that countertransference (and transference, its reverse) introduce to the doctor-patient interaction, but without getting too into the weeds, these phenomena can also actually help enhance interpersonal relationships between patients and their caregivers if recognized and skillfully and appropriately controlled. We can become the physicians they need. They can become the patients we know how to heal.
For me, in my limited role as a student and observer, the phenomenon simply led me down memory lane, which weaved and wound its way in and out of Dr. Palmer’s pediatric clinic on King Drive where, I am delighted to say, I spent many, many afternoons.
I remembered the summertime walks to the hospital building from our home which was, in that day, a mere block or two away. Mama always walked with a sense of urgency. When we crossed the street, any street, hand-in-hand, I had to transition to a full sprint. To passersby, I was doing an excellent job of keeping up. But little did they know we had it all rehearsed: mama held my hand with such vigor that I floated one or two inches off the ground and I cycled my legs back and forth to give the illusion I was walking. It was sweet.
I remembered the hospital waiting room, its yellow walls, the ball-and-wire toys scattering the floor, and the small television in the ceiling’s right-hand corner. I still haven’t watched The Lion King in full, but it was in that room on mama’s lap that I watched Mufasa lift Simba into the sky. The circle of life.
I remembered the days mama cut her day short, left work early, sped to school to pick me up, delivered me to urgent care on the second floor, and watched helplessly as fevers took me over. There were times when she held me because I felt too weak and too limp. There were times when she held me because the only comfort I could find was in burying my head deep into her side. I will never forget the feeling of her hand on my forehead. She knew me so well that she could tell with the palm of her hand if I had deviated away from my normal temperature and by exactly how much. She turned medicine into an art form, a soft melody I could hum whenever I needed relief.
I remembered the days when I was told to use the bathroom on paper plates for my stool samples to be analyzed after my GI system had failed me. She was never afraid to dirty her pure hands for me. There was nothing about me that caused her to cringe, nothing that she felt too good or too clean or too big to touch, not a single rash, bump, splatter of blood, or infected stool. She was, in so many ways and on so many occasions, the only thing that stood between me and severe illness, even death.
I remembered the time Dr. Palmer was on vacation and my sports physical became the responsibility of a doctor I would never see again. It was his first time seeing me and I suppose he wanted to be thorough. I was in tenth grade and it was my first time doing the ‘squeeze-and-cough’ test. I thought it was ticklish. Oh, the look of horror!
I remembered the day mama snuck me to the park for a midday break and encouraged me to be brave and try the monkey bars for the first time. She lifted me up and I held on tight, just like she said. She let go. I was doing it! I released one hand but couldn’t reach the next bar so, naturally, my second hand gave up. I fell unforgivingly on my face. My bottom lip swelled to the size of a grape as mama threw me over her shoulders and dashed across the field and back into the hospital. Nothing about it was her fault, but I vividly recall discovering at that young age the palpability of a person’s guilt.
And just as memory lane blurred out of focus, the next set of clinic encounters brought it right back into frame, this time winding through some of my most cherished memories.
I remembered the trips on the #3 CTA bus to the Harold Washington Library. After hours of perusing the wildlife section, the space section, the politics section (I was drawn to black and white maps of the Middle East), and the children’s section, we would read the books together as the bus trundled its way home. We only ever occupied one seat: mama on the seat itself, a bag of books secured safely between her feet, and myself clutching a book on panda bears and perched lazily on mama’s lap. Our adventures were long and exhausting; her legs were tired and sore. But nothing ever stopped her. Her favorite activity was hanging out with me, even when my eyelids sagged from the weight of all the new things I’d learned and my head fell onto her shoulder. She had no one to talk to while I slept so she just watched me breathe to the beat of her heart.
I remembered the McDonald’s Happy Meals she bought me whenever I met a major milestone: straight A’s, a lost tooth, a week without smearing food all over the walls or eating soap. If you thought my sticker collection was intense, my mountains of toy cars and Teenie Beanie Babies were twice as impressive.
I remembered her morning ritual — which, I should add, she began on my very first day of preschool and has continued to this day — of waking up before me, preparing breakfast and lunch, and, for most of my childhood, driving me through whatever Mother Nature brought our way to school or to the bus stop.
It became readily apparent that since the day I was born, my mother’s life was no longer hers. She lived, rather, entirely for me. Her schedule changed. Her priorities changed. She slept according to my sleeping schedule. She cried when I was in pain. Her ambitions were to guide me to success and happiness before she could find it herself. It was, is, and will forever be totally selfless.
Twenty-five years later, standing in the middle of a room adorned with pictures of superheros I never really believed in, I remembered that there was a real, authentic superhero out there thinking of me just as intently as she had when she held me in her arms for the very first time. As I watched mothers display an unbreakable and unshakable love for their children that I recognized so well, I eventually took a knee. I am so blessed to have had such a tangible reminder of why I am forever indebted to my superhero, my mother. Happy birthday.