Briskly walking through the back doors of the hospital at 4:30 a.m. felt mechanical after only two days. My route through the hospital was burned into my mind, making it unnecessary to focus in my automated state. But I needed to focus on pushing down my fear and putting on a smile. Focus on being supportive and strong – it was my job. My rapid pace kept me ahead of any hesitation and before I knew it, I pressed the button that would take me to the ICU. I was headed to the place I dreaded most, yet the place that I most needed to be – my mom’s bedside. 

My family created shifts to relieve one another so my mom would never be alone. It was my dad’s idea. He was the first to my mom’s side after her bicycle accident. Her front wheel passed through a street grate resulting in facial trauma and a partial C5/C6 spinal cord injury. I drew back the curtains to my mom’s room and saw my sleeping dad splayed across the armchair. I wondered if he replayed the incident in his mind, dwelling on events he couldn’t change. He was on a ride with my mom, cycling immediately behind her. He stabilized her neck, called 9-1-1, and rode with her in the ambulance. He witnessed the whole trauma . . . 

I stopped my mind from wandering off. It was my job to stay strong. I took a breath in and stepped into the room, my dad’s replacement. 

At prior shift changes, my dad would tiredly head for home upon my arrival. My mom would ask me to undim the lights and insist I read from my MCAT prep book, because my test was just over a week away. Even as she lay there paralyzed on the hospital bed, she was the steadiest of any of us. Still taking care of the family even though she was the one who needed care. The least I could do was to comply. I pretended to focus on heart physiology, but I was more focused on keeping my own heart from breaking. 

This morning was different. The lights stayed dim. Rather than a weary welcome from my mom, I was met with an incoherent groan. When my dad started to depart, my mom gripped his hand and urged, “Don’t go.” There was no change of guard as my mom struggled with head pain and nausea.  I sat huddled in the corner, confused and scared. Hours passed with nothing but the cadence of monitor chirps. Then the rhythm was broken, morning rounds had begun, and as a group of my mom’s medical team entered the room, everything fell apart. 

Her eyes rolled back, multiple monitors alarmed, and the medical team swarmed around the bed shouting, “Julie! Julie!” and “Keep her head still!” Within the span of a second my dad switched from concerned husband to calm physician. I’m not sure which transformation was more terrifying, my dad shutting off his emotions or my mom appearing maniacal. I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself and see through the haze of my fear. My breath was silent, but somehow it drew my dad’s attention. Our eyes met and his lips started to tremble, his composure cracking if only for a moment. It was then that the rest of the medical staff realized I was there, huddled in the corner and more scared than I had ever been in my life.  “Get her out of here!” broke above the shouting, and the next thing I knew I was outside of the chaos in the deafening silence. 

Four years later, I find myself automatically pulling on my white coat and walking into a rehabilitation facility. Though I hadn’t been here often, it felt familiar as I had spent time at a similar facility with my mom during her recovery. I watched as she learned to use devices enabling her to walk and drive with her new restrictions. 

From the hallway, I see a man lying on the bed, unresponsive, the right side of his body splayed across it at uneven angles. Two women sit near him in a deafening silence. I glance down at my notes – rehabilitation following stroke. Memories flash through my mind – from the scared girl removed from her mother’s bedside, to the zombie in the library wrapped in a fluffy blanket, to an eager medical student learning from physician mentors how to best treat and support patients during difficult times. I take a deep breath and begin to speak, cutting through the silence as gently as I can.