Two missed proms
The American Medical Student Association and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.
It took exactly three Tuesdays. Each week, I knocked timidly on the door, waiting for his characteristic gruff “come in” before I dutifully entered the room clad in the paper gown. I would approach the bed, chipper as ever, as he glanced at me through lidded eyes of disdain.
A brief history of our interactions would read as:
Tuesday #1: A cup of Jell-O and please turn off the lights.
Tuesday #2: Do you guys have Call of Duty? Fine, can I just have FIFA.
Tuesday #3: I’m good for today.
“Tomorrow was supposed to be my prom, you know,” barely a whisper behind me.
My tongue felt as if it was glued to the roof of my mouth as I turned ever so slightly, waiting. I could sense the air saturated with tension.
He laughed bitterly. “They told me I’d be out of here by now. I promised my girlfriend I would take her.”
Each word dripped with acid that ran off his tongue and pooled at my feet.
I swiveled slowly, afraid I might spook off this moment of rare vulnerability. I mustered a weak, “I can’t imagine.”
I had hoped this would be a benign offering, but his head snapped towards me so sharply that I stepped backwards.
“No. You CAN’T imagine. I bet you got to go to your prom, didn’t you?”
It was more of an accusation than a question. Bracing myself for his next inundation of rage, I nodded my assent wordlessly.
But his anger dissipated as quickly as it came. He shut his eyes tightly and leaned his head back against the steel bar of his hospital bed. The movement was so familiar, so practiced, that I could tell he had assumed this exact position before, searching for meaning in this unholy campground.
I suddenly realized that when I entered every week, I was intruding on the most intimate moments of his life. I could see it more clearly: my knock, the threat of an invader as he haphazardly tucked in the corners of his Tuesday.
“They promised I would be out of here. I don’t know why I believe them anymore.”
Suddenly, I remembered a slight caveat, a correction to my previous answer.
“Well actually… I only made it to one prom. The other prom I was in a full leg cast because I tripped and broke my knee.”
He glanced at me beneath the curtain of sandy-brown hair as I looked back at him, no longer afraid to meet his eyes. We challenged each other in silence for a few moments until his bubbles of laughter burst forth.
“That has to be the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”
We were both doubled over at my clumsiness as I assured him that I had fallen onto the pavement with a satisfying thwack.
There was an imperceptible shift. Our Tuesdays were now intertwined. In sharing a piece of my history (and an embarrassing one at that) I had reminded him that I was also fallible and human.
“Damn. Well at least cancer is a better excuse to call a raincheck than being a klutz.”
I see medicine as an opportunity to forge relationships in unexpected ways, its core remaining the in-between moments of people connecting in shared spaces. As the hours of my shift unraveled, he confided in me his tricks to get extra dessert and his frustrations that his hair was falling out in clumps.
It took three Tuesdays for me to learn that fostering trust is a broken and messy process, oftentimes taking one step forward and three steps back. It is no easy feat for someone in their most vulnerable moments to invite you into the complicated prism of their lives. Instead of expecting an easy connection, I have learned to sit with the awkward and uncomfortable. Even when it feels like no headway has been made, continuing to knock on the door is its own kind of promise. I may not always find a quick joke or common thread, but I can choose to show up anyway.
As I stepped outside onto the slick sidewalk that Tuesday, I knew without turning that he was watching from the window. So, I let my feet skid on the asphalt as I pirouetted dramatically to the ground.
From a dimly lit window on the 4th floor of a children’s hospital, I was rewarded by a toothy grin and slow clap before the curtains swung shut.
Meher Kalkat is a second-year student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and is originally from West Palm Beach, Florida. She is passionate about medical education, physician and trainee wellness, and combating mental health stigma. In her free time, she loves to sing karaoke, bake, and take photographs.
Building Trust Essay Contest Winners & Honorable Mentions
- Politics: An unlikely answer to the crisis of medical mistrust
- Don’t impress, just express
- The importance of medical communication in building trust
- From personal connections to community advocacy
- Yo quiero aprender mas
- Two missed proms
- Humility and trust
- I hurt like you
- Apologize, acknowledge, amends: respecting patient autonomy
- Healing through trust