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Playing Doctor

The Universe, she's wounded But she's still got infinity ahead of her She's still got you and me

~Gregory Allan Isakov

I’m cutting a pizza into ridiculously narrow slices for my four-year-old daughter Arya and my five year-old-son Finn when they call me into the living room. “We’re playing ‘doctor’ Daddy!” they shout and by “playing doctor,” they do not mean it in the way I thought of it when I was a kid. No, to them it’s serious business, and, apparently, I’m being recruited to play the part of the standardized patient. Soon, I find myself splayed out on the gurney—A.K.A. the futon—surrounded by an assortment of plastic tools from a kid’s medical kit, a kit surprisingly impressive in scope and sophistication . . . though the presence of a bone saw strikes me as a bit intense!

“Hurry Finn!” Arya shouts. “Get the shot. This is an emergency.” Interestingly, she’s actually found a legitimate issue and is pointing Finn toward a patch of eczema on the soft side of my upper arm.

He shouts, “I’m coming Awe-we-ah! (‘his pronunciation of Arya’)” and soon has a thick, plastic syringe jammed with surprising force into the center of the eczema. “Ow!” I squeak, no longer faking it, and realize that it’s starting to feel like I’m actually at the doctor’s office! This thought makes me laugh, and Arya immediately hisses, “Shush. Don’t laugh. It’s not funny.” And next, when she raises the bone saw, I think “Oh shit! She’s gonna amputate,” and for some reason, this thought makes me laugh harder. Arya, extremely displeased now, says in the most serious tone she can muster, “Okay Finn, you’re going to have to sit on Daddy so he stops laughing”—the children’s version of a straight-jacket.

The very fact that I am laughing at all in the midst of their doctor play is radically different than when I’d first found them playing doctor a little over a year ago. At that time, they’d hung a pretend IV line from the top of a chair and were taking turns connecting it to each other’s arms. To say that I had been horrified would be an understatement. Quickly turning, I’d fled to the garage before they could see me sobbing. Normally, I don’t hide crying as modeling grief is important, but there was something different about this. As I’d sat in the garage, I thought about how often they had watched the chemo poison slowly drip into mommy’s body. I thought about how they had witnessed at least two of mommy’s seizures and how, even months after she had passed away, part of their medical play sometimes involved one of the stuffed animals saying words that “don’t make sense.” I thought about how much time they’d spent on the oncology ward because their mommy was desperate to hold them—in fact, they were there so often that Arya would say, “Mommy’s house” any time we drove to or even past the hospital. I thought about how both kids had come along to the ER several times, something we had tried to prevent but became necessary in moments of crisis—gushing nose bleeds and extreme disorientation don’t offer much time for finding a babysitter. And the list, sadly, could go on. So, when I’d found them reenacting aspects of this nightmare, it was more than my heart could take.

But as time passed, they continued to play doctor, and Arya even set up a little clinic under her loft bed to treat hurt stuffed animals. As a result, I got used to their medical scenarios, even those involving mock trauma. But it’s not until tonight, it’s not until I find myself laughing, it’s not until I catch myself looking upon their play with a sense of pride, that I realize something has radically changed. But what?

Four months earlier I’d sat at a long conference table with seven medical students as they read their illness narratives a loud, narratives that either had to be about one’s own illness experience or that of a loved one. The only guidelines for the assignment were that it had to be from one’s own perspective, and it needed to be as honest as possible. And my God, the stories were honest. Of the nearly seventy students who wrote illness narratives and cycled through the little conference room in small groups, not a single one blew off the work though their writing varied in style and intensity. And for many it was no simple task. Vulnerability is not something that typically comes easily to people, and the fact that they were willing to share their suffering, trauma, and shame, spoke of its importance in their lives and their desire to become healers. They were damn protective of each other too! Classmates who broke down into tears were immediately validated, given Kleenex, and even hugged. The poor block director, the woman who had graciously created space for our work to take place, was given the unfortunate task of interrupting us once when a session had run late. The students were so upset that one of their classmates had been interrupted in the middle of his narrative that they wrote an official complaint. Perhaps what surprised me the most—though in retrospect, it seems somewhat obvious—was the severity of the trauma many of them had experienced and the influential nature of the medical intervention they or a family member had received. For some, the medical intervention had been horrific and their mission, their calling, was to practice medicine differently. For most, however, a physician had saved their life, saved a parent’s life, saved a sibling’s life, or even just shown incredible compassion during a time of extreme duress. In essence, a shocking number of the students had been severely wounded physically and psychologically, but these wounds became their motivation, their source of strength and empathy.

My eczema has now been officially treated, and as I rise from the hospital bed in hopes of procuring a cold beverage, Finn firmly pushes me back down and shouts, “Oh no Awe-we-ah! Daddy’s heart needs help!”

Oh my, I think, they have no idea how true this is. A second later, Arya has carefully placed one hand over the other, interlocked her fingers, and is attempting to deliver chest compressions—something I’d shown her one Sunday afternoon after she’d asked what a heart-attack was. Her hands are more in the middle of my chest, but I’m impressed all the same. But when she leans forward to deliver the rescue breaths, I tell her, “Save that part for your teddy bears honey.”

She pauses thoughtfully before launching back into frenzied action. “Okay Finn. Grab the mouth tool! Look at Daddy’s teeth.” Finn, playing the dutiful assistant, follows orders and has one of those angled dental mirrors jammed in mouth within seconds while Arya continues chest compressions. After a moment, Finn cheerfully announces, “No cavities.” The absurdity of getting a friendly dental check-up while simultaneously receiving CPR is too much for me and I break into howls of laughter. “Daaaddddyyy,” Arya whines, “You’re not playing right.”

“You want your patients to smile and laugh,” I tell her. “Believe me, it means they’re feeling better . . . or at least that they trust you.”

She purses her lips thoughtfully and then, with a curt nod, says, “Okay. You can laugh now.”

And I do, her deadly serious tone both touching and comical. Clearly, this is an important game to her, and she wants me to take it seriously. It occurs to me in this moment what has changed, why the kids’ version of playing doctor is no longer driving me into the garage to cry alone. While it will always have an edge of sadness, of grief, I now see blooming potential. My students reminded me that trauma can be a source of strength, of motivation to help others. Who knows, perhaps someday my children will help save someone else’s mommy. So, keep playing doctor my little ones. Be wounded healers.

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