“What else is the help of medicine than love?”—Paracelsus
One rainy night in August, I was walking along the barely lit corridors of the hospital. The day had been hectic as usual: attending to outpatients, reading ECGs, doing the rounds on the pay floors, and listening in at a lunchtime conference. I was feeling fatigue from all the power walking and an ignored stomach crying for supper.
At that point when I was to take the right turn toward the old canteen, I heard a faint, unfamiliar voice of a woman. “Good evening, Doc.”
“Hello po,” I replied, squinting to see her face hidden by the dark.
She slowed her pace and paused where the high lighting directly fell on her. Now I could clearly see her face, but I was perplexed to gaze at the swell of emotions. She was trying to paint happy brushstrokes on her face but the sad canvas would not cooperate. Her eyes welled with tears, but they would not fall. And she looked tired.
Quickly I found her identity file in my memory cabinet. She is the mother of a patient I admitted a few months back.
Her daughter had been diagnosed with aplastic anemia. It was a terrible shock for the family members, but with time and faith they learned to accept the bitter fact. The child had been prescribed three pills a day. With their meager income, they still made sure no pills would be missed.
Quarterly and now more frequently, the mother had been taking her daughter to the hospital. She was away from the child only to buy medicines, take blood specimens to the lab, or look for platelets for transfusion. In one of the child’s many hospital admissions, I was her attending physician.
We had crossed each other’s path twice or thrice on the hospital corridors, and each time the mother had a genuine smile. But this time her smile was eclipsed by a gnawing pain, a nagging sorrow—maybe from caregiver fatigue (it is never easy to go in and out of a hospital for months); a sense of helplessness (it is never easy to procure six units of platelets every bleeding episode); empty pockets (it is never easy to pay for routine lab tests and pills); or simply lack of sleep (it is never easy to watch over a sick child).
Of course, nothing is difficult and impossible for a mother who loves her child. She sees to it that every medication is given. She fakes her smiles to hide her fears, to steady her tears. She cracks jokes and makes hopeful quips to make her child optimistic and cheery. She provides a calming touch. She never fails to pray to God and would bargain the possibility of the illness transferring to her and sparing her child.
But maybe this time she had come to the point where she could no longer hide her pain. She had become transparent to my eyes. She had accepted that it is never easy to be a mother. She had realized that every warrior had an Achilles’ heel.
Doc, we’re here again. My child needs platelets again, the mother said, her voice faltering.
You’ll get through this, I know you’ll get through this, I said, looking her in the eyes and patting her arm. I hoped that my words comforted her.
We parted, each smiling. She walked back to the ward. For a minute I was left overwhelmed by the moment. I decided to follow her.
From a distance I secretly watched the scene—the mother on a chair and the child on her bed. They were silent. But I noted that something had changed: The mother’s face showed, no longer pain and sorrow, but a radiant hopefulness. How could this metamorphosis happen so quickly?
A mother’s love for her child is so powerful in the healing process. I asked myself: Can we doctors emulate a mother’s love to better deliver care to our patients? Somehow, there is so much we doctors can learn from mothers, the first caregivers of the human race.
Joey Tabula, 27, is a resident in internal medicine at the Philippine General Hospital.