Aishwarya Sharma, OMS II

The room is bright white, clear and aseptic. White walls, white bed, white curtains. And in the middle of it all is a sobbing woman. I watch her tear-streaked face as she assesses her surroundings, fear in her eyes. I am supposed to be getting the history and physical, but I seem to be frozen in place, lost in a broken memory of my past.

My mother is in her position. Small, broken, crying at the horror she had to face, the horror she tried her hardest to prevent. My sister is next to her on the hospital bed, cradling her broken arm. Although covered in bruises of her own, my mother cannot look away from her. I am sitting on her lap, 3 or 4 years old at the time. My father had become angry after my sister would not listen to him. He pulled her down from the stairs and she fell on her arm with a sickening crunch against the cold, marble floor. My mother stepped in between them to stop him, but in the process, she faced the brunt of his aggression.

“What did you do to make him angry?” The female physician asks my mother. Her voice is drowned out as I hear the blood rushing in my ears, anger lacing through my tiny body. Even at such a young age, even living in India, I can’t fathom how society could treat women this way. How although my mother is sitting in the emergency room with injuries given to her at the hands of a man that couldn’t control his anger, she is being faulted.

I hear the sobbing and am pulled back into the here and now. I grab a tissue and crouch down beside the woman.

“Thank you.” She hiccups out between her tears.

I sit with her for what seems like an eternity. Sometimes silence soothes the other person. I let her fall into me and cry against my white coat, being careful to gently stroke her back as she recounts the details of her night. How her husband got angry again. How she wants to leave, but she doesn’t know where she can go. How she regrets the father she gave her children. I listen to her sorrow-filled tale and I know how she feels because I have been there. My mother has been there. And, we escaped due to my mother’s courage.

As a physician, with a patient’s life bare in front of us, we are in a position of responsibility that few have the honor of upholding. In this moment, I know where my duty lies. It lies in reminding this woman that her life is not over. That this is not the end, it is the beginning. I look her in the eyes and I recall some of the worst moments of my life. The abuse my sister, mother, and I faced at my father’s hands. I tell her of my mother’s strength, who took her two little girls and fled the only country she had ever called home. I tell her of how my mother began her life in the United States with nothing more than two suitcases, one hundred dollars in her pocket, and two young daughters. I remind her that this moment shall pass like all the others and although right now life seems bleak, she will survive this and thrive. As we talk, I can see her transition from being the broken, shattered woman who walked into the emergency department to a strong, hopeful one who is determined to leave her present situation. By the time she is ready for discharge, I make sure she has all the information she needs to be able to get out of her current situation. She makes the difficult decision of filing a police report, and I sit with her as she recants what happened to the officer.

After she is gone, I know I may never see her again. Her life is her own and that is one of the biggest burdens to bear in medicine. The empathy I feel for her is palpable, this living, breathing entity that makes itself known within me. I want to save her. I want to rescue every woman like her and take away their pain. But that is idealistic and the reality is that many more cases like her’s occur every single day.

However, we, as physicians, can make a difference. We can be the first line of defense against domestic abuse. We can counsel, we can listen, and we can help to the best of our abilities, not just as physicians, but as fellow human beings who want to ease others’ anguish. That day in the ED reminded me of the honor and privilege I have in my role as a medical student. It reminded me of my responsibility to not only do no harm, but help improve others’ lives.

I escaped a situation few ever do because of the resilience my mother showed. She was the beacon of hope I clutched onto during difficult times and the reason I am alive today. Like her, I want to be a beacon of hope to others. I want to use this profound gift to the best of my abilities and make a difference in the lives of those who really need it. Empathy is one of our strongest assets and I intend to fully utilize this skill. The days where I am battered down by the trauma I see around me and burned out by the inescapable drawbacks of our profession, I will remember that woman’s smile as she hugged me goodbye, ready to start the next chapter of her life with the same hope that is reflected in the rising sun breaking through heavy clouds, signaling the beginning of a beautiful, new day.