Katarzyna Clarke: Human

Katarzyna is a recipient of the Fawaz Kannout Memorial Scholarship. Awarded in conjunction with the MALA Scholarship Program, this scholarship recognizes compassionate and ambitious individuals who are committed to strengthening and serving their communities through cultural engagement, inclusive discourse, and progressive thought. To learn more about MALA’s Scholarship Opportunities, click here.

The resident physician’s ponytail swings as she presses down on the baby’s chest with two fingers and counts out loud. A steady stream of doctors, nurses, and intensivists rush in and out of the room, calling out orders, stepping to the side to see the cardiac monitor. Still flat. The EKG stickers stay stuck. The defibrillator analyses. The resident switches with a nurse to continue CPR.

Everyone has their place. Mine is in the corridor watching through the glass walls of the ICU room. The baby’s mother is there too. Tightly holding a cold cup of coffee, she sits in an office chair we wheeled over from the nurse’s station. Her hands shake. The chaplain has left, “paged to another emergency “ so the baby’s mother and I are left together in the hallway. I do not know what to do. All my training in medical school on cardiac arrest has focused on the CPR itself; where to place my hands, how fast to do compressions, when to give breaths, how to attach the sticky pads from the defibrillator.

In my almost four years of medical school, I have auscultated hearts and lungs, interpreted chest x-rays, guided a newborn into the world, scrubbed into surgeries. I know how to aim the lapropscopic camera around the abdomen, listen carefully to symptoms and determine the most likely diagnosis, name side effects of various antibiotics, insert an IV, figure out how to treat a pneumonia, read the EKG, even give bad news, but no one has taught me how to be with someone in uncertainty and pain. My identity as a medical student has been wrapped up in everything else“ the science, the knowledge, the physical skills and actions. And here I am with no actions. What do I have? What can I do?

Before medical school, and even in it, I studied languages with the intention of working with Doctors Without Borders. Still, not a single word in Polish or Spanish or French or Russian comes to my lips. Who I am as a linguist or a teacher or a friend who loves in these languages doesn’t seem to matter. I put my hand on the mother’s shoulder and slowly rub her back. She reaches up and holds my other hand. Who am I? What can I do? Our hearts seem to beat in silent prayer.

They keep doing CPR, rotating through the cast of doctors and nurses. I hold the mom’s hand and recited all the ayat I’d memorized silently, and then just the names of God I can remember, oh Compassionate One, oh Life-giver, oh Sustainer, oh Healer. I am not a parent myself; no one I have loved with such great steadiness and fierceness had ever been in this position. My parents and siblings are alive, healthy; my spouse sleeps soundly on the other side of the world. Who am I as a daughter, a sibling, a spouse? I do not know what they would do if they were here. The beeps continue, and the mom and I wait. When I can, I name what is happening: an ultrasound, some medications, a blood infusion. There is a pulse and then it disappears back again.

I have been handed boxes of darkness before. What did my years teaching English in Russia teach me, or my time in the anatomy lab in Australia? What was my identity when I couldn’t do those things? Who was I now, in a short white coat, scrubs, and hijab, rubbing this mom’s back and wishing I could be doing CPR, something I knew how to do? Something that fit snuggly in the realm of medical student.

But I am not only a medical student, I have my family stories, I have roots that stretch across the world. My grandmother’s baby brother died in a labour camp during their forced deportation to Siberia. He was sick, and the only medicine was boiling water. When the colour faded from his cheeks and his pulse was gone too, his mother carried his body to the woods and dug a hole in the forest and buried him there. The other details I cannot know: how long she was able to hold him, what prayers she said when she knew he was dying, how much anger she had at God. I am not a parent and what this mother beside me is going through, I cannot understand.

A doctor comes out and asks if the mother wants to see her baby; the baby isn’t coming back. The last time this happened (by this I mean a patient dying) it was a woman a few years older than me who came in crying that she didn’t want to die. Her husband was crying and saying I love you over and over. She had terminal cancer. I had been married for two years then and my eyes overflowed. What am I if not human? What is my essence if not that, if not the shared spirit with others? I went home and tended my plants. I wrote a poem. I stained my skin with henna flowers. I cooked my grandmother’s pierogi. I called the people I loved.

And then, like now, I knew I had to be present. The mother. Her curved back. Her head down when the doctor crouches down to tell her she was sorry, we did our best, we did everything. The chaplain still gone. I call on every ounce of my being to be present with the mother. This is it. Whoever I am, whatever stories or knowledge I have, this is it. We walk in together to see her tiny baby, her hands still beautiful, her skin still warm.

Whoever I was before this — Muslim, spouse, daughter, medical student, linguist, poet, artist, Polish-American isn’t: it is only us, three humans who are aching all over like the body in heartbreak, like the heart in compassion.