August 15, 2010

White Coat

We were in a performing arts center, in red velvet chairs lined up in continental seating.  Family members and friends were arrayed behind us and in the balcony.  I was separated at the last minute from my roommate and sat in the middle of one of the last rows of my class, with two people I hadn't met yet on either side.

There were speakers; the Dean and the President and several professors all gave welcoming words and admonishments as to the importance of what we were about to embark upon.  Yet somehow the ceremony did not seem quite real, quite as solemn as I had hoped.  I think I would have liked for us to recite a portion of the Hippocratic oath, or perhaps the Oath of Maimonides (one that was quoted, to great effect, in one professor's speech).  Even though we had only one role--file onstage in groups of thirteen, stand at attention and slip our arms backward into the stiff white sleeves--it was in listening to the Oath of Maimonides that I finally felt welling up within me an immense wellspring of emotion.  

The Oath of Maimonides
The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures. May the love for my art actuate me at all time; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children.
May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain.
Grant me the strength, time and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to extend its domain; for knowledge is immense and the spirit of man can extend indefinitely to enrich itself daily with new requirements.
Today he can discover his errors of yesterday and tomorrow he can obtain a new light on what he thinks himself sure of today. Oh, God, Thou has appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures; here am I ready for my vocation and now I turn unto my calling.

It is strange to put words to it, exactly: I was proud to be joining this profession; I was thrilled that my life's work could be this care and love for my fellow man; there was a hint of anxiety, lest I fail in my duties to my patients and my colleagues; but above all, what struck me was the expanding love I felt for my future patients.  In that moment, listening to an oath describing the feeling I had when I thought about becoming a doctor, I felt as if now, finally, I was different and ready, that I was prepared for the personal changes that are to come.

In a way, I feel now that my self has refracted: it is as if who I was before continues to exist, but bent away from its original path.  Instead, there are other parts of me that are bent even further, the parts which will be responsible for patients, and which will be responsible for being professional, and which will call upon the rest of me to step up and do what is necessary and what is right.  I have only felt this kind of shift maybe once or twice before--after my father's funeral, and last fall when I decided to become a vegetarian.  In both cases, I felt as if something inside had simply fallen into place, and a new course was set for how my life would be.  Here, too, I feel my old self shifting to fit around the strange corner into the new me, where I have simply no choice but to change, because my new life requires a completely different approach.

Classes start tomorrow.  I'm ready.

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