In the orthopedic surgery clinic, we see a lot of pain. We see physical pain: blown-out shoulders in gymnasts and oilfield workers, worn-out knees in former marathon runners and nurses on their feet all day, painful and tired hips in dancers and the elderly. But we also see another side of pain, in parents forced to take off work due to disability, scrambling to buy their kids new shoes, in new widows now coming to their bimonthly appointments alone, in veterans who have gone ignored and untreated for what seems like ages. All this pain means we are very busy, and for some people, that would be exhausting. But for Dr. Kirkpatrick’s team, that means that we get a front-row seat and an opportunity to give relief to some of the most resilient and positive people on the planet, whom we affectionately call “rock stars”. It also means we never stop learning.
When people began to ask me what I wanted to do with my life, I never knew what to say. I told them that I just never wanted to stop learning; I never wanted to sit down at my desk and realize that I already knew everything that I was going to need to know to complete my tasks for the day. It wasn’t until mid-high school, after falling in love with the brain in my first biology and psychology classes, that I realized that the best way to ensure a lifetime of learning would be to study medicine. What captivates me about the brain is its plasticity – its ability to heal itself, to overcome obstacles and mend after trauma. Neural plasticity is a subject on which our knowledge as scientists is growing exponentially every day. Stroke, diabetes, trauma, cancer, injury, and mental illness all affect the wiring of the brain and the delicate functions and memories it houses. And yet, as battered as the brain can become, we see over and over again the ways that memories endure, that function is regained, that what is lost can be found again.
People fascinate me in the same way. The same rock stars that we treat every day leave our clinics and return to lives that are often far from glamorous and fraught with difficulty for someone who is not readily mobile, or who lacks resources, or insurance, or human support. And yet, we watch patients in our clinic – and countless others – display incredible resiliency.
I witnessed another example of human resiliency during my seven months abroad, when I got the opportunity to volunteer with a refugee organization helping provide relief to the hundreds of thousands of migrants flooding the Italian shores. Proficient in English and French and conversational in Italian, I was recruited to help translate between the French-speaking West African populations and the Italian volunteers. These people had overcome impossible odds to reach Europe – most had voyaged in lifeboats across the Mediterranean, paying their entire life savings to human traffickers to secure a spot in an inflatable raft. They have fled disease, terrorism, rape, violence and devastating poverty and arrived, penniless and hopeful and utterly unwanted by the European population. Yet we watched as, with a little help, some migrants flourished – procuring jobs, reuniting families. Incredibly, people learn to adapt, to bounce back, even in the worst of circumstances.
I believe that because people are remarkable, our healthcare and communities should be remarkable as well. My passion for medicine lies not only in the sheer awe I have for the way that humans function; it also finds its roots in my deep discomfort with the issues that our rural and impoverished communities face. For as long as I can remember, I have seen and interacted with the poverty that afflicts my hometown of Tulsa. Unfortunately for the residents of the poorer areas of Oklahoma, healthcare is hard to find and even harder to pay for. This results in the staggering levels of diabetes, obesity, addiction and mental illness that plague this corner of the world. We see these issues especially clearly in some of the medical fields I have experienced: diabetes and obesity are direct causes of joint and bone deterioration, and my time helping run clinical trials at Laureate Institute for Brain Research irreversibly stamped on my memory the effects of addiction and mental illness that result from homelessness and poverty.
I believe that today’s doctors have to be planners if they want to maximize the technology and knowledge available. They have to see both the big picture to aspire to change the climate of healthcare, and the very small, day-to-day, unglamorous picture, the parts of being a doctor that are tiresome and stressful. The remarkable human race deserves physicians that care about both the body and the brain, about treating both symptoms and root causes. That is the kind of doctor that I aspire to be; one who is compassionate and dedicated in the small things and the everyday cases, and one who is inspired and undaunted when looking to change the way that community and healthcare interact.