A Day with Monet

A few days ago, I went to see an exhibition of the early years of Claude Monet, a French artist, at the Kimbell Art Museum.

A classmate of mine had managed to procure free tickets for a small group tour and invited me along. I was assigned to be on call that day, but could not pass up the opportunity. After explaining to my residents and attending, they graciously allowed me to leave the hospital an hour early to attend.

I saw over fifty paintings, from his first studies of landscaping to his eventual move towards Impressionism. It was an awe-inspiring journey of color and expression and story of a young, struggling artist.

magpie-monet
The Magpie
Claude Monet, 1869

At the museum, I also learned a new word. A docent is “a person who leads guided tours especially through a museum or art gallery.” How posh, I thought. The word seemed to convey education and expertise. And indeed, the docent who guided our group had a vast pool of knowledge about the paintings displayed. She knew from which museum or collection each painting had been procured. She knew where Monet had painted each piece. She explained how two seemingly very different paintings could simply be two different points of views. How many times had she given this same presentation? Yet as I watched her speak, I could see her delight and joy in the simple act of sharing her passion for art.

do·cent | noun | ˈdōsənt | a person who leads guided tours especially through a museum or art gallery

The docent told us that Monet and other Impressionists rebelled against the tradition of painting shadows in grey or black. They saw that there were colors to be discovered in shadows too. Critics initially rejected Monet’s famous snowscape The Magpie (see above) for its innovative depiction of shadow using delicate tones of blue. Today it is hailed as one of his best work.

As I listened, I thought about the importance of balancing tradition with transformation. Monet had been trained as a traditional landscape artist before beginning to branch out into new studies of light and shadow. Without that foundation of study, perhaps he would not have been as successful. Yet he also did not allow himself to be entrenched in the “rules” of his work. Likewise, my medical school has given me a foundation to build upon. But my learning will surely never end. In the course of my career, I will see vast changes and discoveries. What colors lay hidden in the shadows of medicine? Will I be able to learn and adapt?

Afterwards, my friends and I went out for dinner. It was wonderful to see them again. Last year, I saw my classmates nearly every day. Now as third years, we are all busy running around in our different electives and choosing our future path.

Of course, as with any collection of medical students, we had the usual circle where we all went around and talked about how our minds have changed after more exposure to different specialties. A former aspiring radiologist now has her mind set on obstetrics. A former hopeful surgeon now wants to do pain management. Last year, I thought of becoming a neurologist or internist – now I have decided on psychiatry.

My declaration was not met with surprise.

“I wouldn’t have guessed it, but I can see it,” one person told me. “It suits you.”

“He’s calling you insane,” someone else joked.

Then we talked about the exhibit.

“When I’m a resident, I’d like to involve art in my study,” someone said. “After all, medicine is both a science and a humanity.”

I thought of the dozens of patients whom I have met over the last six months. I thought of all the challenges that we had yet to face and all the lessons we will learn. I thought of the docent and her love of art. I thought of Monet and the Impressionists and their shadows of color and light.

I couldn’t agree more with my friend.

The Right Things

Everything must be used until it falls apart. Clothing should be worn and handed down until it became threadbare. No grain of rice should be wasted.

The man walks up to the volunteer table where we are performing free blood pressure and glucose checks. He is Asian, in his fifties or sixties, with greying hair and a smiling, weather-worn face.

As I prep his finger for the glucose stick, he tells me, “Do you want to know a secret?”

“What is it?” I ask, politely.

“I have a bad liver. My doctor gives me medication to take every day. But here’s the secret. I can make the medication last longer if I only take it when my skin is yellow. See?” He presses on his skin so that it turns pale. “That’s how I check.”

He tells me this with the confidence of a man who does not expect to be challenged. After all, I am a young Asian woman, fresh out of college. In most traditional Asian cultures, the young do not correct the elderly. I probe delicately, with deference and respect.

“Why do you want to make the medication last longer?” I ask.

“To save money, of course!” the man exclaims.

He looks at me incredulously. However, after some more questions, I find out that he is financially secure. Why then, is he concerned about money? I don’t need to ask to understand. My parents and grandparents are similar. After World War II, conflict continued in East Asia for decades. The people became frugal by necessity. When my grandfather was eighteen, he fled to Taiwan with nothing but the clothes on his back. He instilled in my father the mindset of thrift, bordering on cheapness, that everything must be used until it falls apart. Clothing should be worn and handed down until it became threadbare. No grain of rice should be wasted.

I can see that same frugality in this gentleman.

“Maybe there is a reason that the doctor wants you to take the medication every day,” I suggest as I wrap a bandaid around his finger.

“Ayy, they just want my money,” he says with a smile. Then he becomes doubtful. “And I feel fine.”

I attempt to nudge him along.

“It wouldn’t hurt to ask your doctor.”

Then I tell him that his blood glucose is normal. He smiles and shrugs and raises his eyebrows as if to say, See? Everything is fine. He thanks me. I watch him leave and hope that I had said the right things.

Today’s Daily Post Writing Prompt: Yellow

Ten Minutes

“It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone in ten minutes of casual conversation.”

The doors swing open. I bustle through, the tails of my short white coat fluttering behind me. It is my first day as a medical student in this hospital and I’ve been sent to see Mrs. “W”. I look around, a little lost, and hope that I’ve finally found the right floor. The nurse sitting at the desk looks up. Her eyes are very large and very blue.

“Welcome to the floor!” she says, with amazing cheer for seven o’clock in the morning.

I freeze in my tracks.

“Thank you,” I say.

Her wide, blue eyes continue to stare at me. Her lips are smiling, curved in a pink, plastic smile like a Barbie doll. I feel like an unwelcome intruder, a lost third-year medical student playing doctor and invading the daily churn and flow of the unit. And so I continue, stuttering nervously over my words.

“I-I’m here to see a patient.”

“Thank you for coming to see our patient!” she says.

Her enthusiasm remains unflagging. I introduce myself and mumble a few somewhat coherent sentences like Where-Is-Room-12? and something about the weather and Have-A-Nice-Day! Eventually I find my way to the patient.

Mrs. W is a thin 60-something-year-old woman with COPD (causing shortness of breath) and venous insufficiency (which causes severe pain in her legs) who, well, also does a bit of cocaine every now and then. While she came to the hospital for breathing problems, her primary complaint is her leg pain. She has been scheduled for an outpatient vascular surgery clinic. But until then, she must live with the pain. We discuss the benefits of walking.

“I know it’s hard to exercise in the hospital, but walking would really help,” I tell her.

“Maybe if I had someone to walk with,” she says.

And so that’s how it began. In the afternoon after rounds, I return to her room. We walk two laps around the unit together. She is surprisingly steady on her feet, requiring no assistance, though occasionally she leans against the wall and stops due to pain. And in those ten short minutes, I learn about her. She tells me about her children, two of whom live hundreds of miles away and are too busy to see her. The third is jobless and lives with her at home and helps her “sometimes” around the house. She tells me of how she used to work long days as a single mother to support the family. And how she struggled to quit smoking and finally stopped a few years ago, but hasn’t been able to quit the cocaine.

“I tell myself it’s the last time every time,” she says. “Then I have a bad day and I just do it. I know I gotta stop ’cause it’s bad for my heart, but deep down, I guess I’m not ready yet.”

It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone in ten minutes of casual conversation.

The next day, I am unable to return to her room until much later in the day. She nearly tumbles out of bed when she sees me.

“I thought you forgot about me,” she says.

“Of course not!” I reply.

After I ask about her day, she asks about mine. I share a little about my life. The astounding (but ever shrinking!) number of years of future education that I had yet to traverse. That no, I am not married, but I am in a long-term relationship with my boyfriend. And I tell her some silly things, like how I had ran through the pounding rain that morning and dropped my phone in a puddle. And somehow, it still works!

The nurses notice. They exclaim over how great Mrs. W looks. The exercise put some color in her cheeks, they say. And she is walking so well and so steady on her feet! They dote on her with genuine affection and when they turn to look at me, I can see their gratitude.

We manage to walk three laps.

“Maybe tomorrow we can walk four,” Mrs. W says with a smile.

When I leave that day, the blue-eyed nurse stops me in the hall.

“Thank you for walking with our patient!” she says, with her ever-present cheer.

This time, I smile back.

Today’s Daily Post Writing Prompt: Ten