A Doctor's Search for Meaning

I was inspired to become a physician due to two major influences in my life. The first was my mother. As a young adult, she escaped Communist Romania because she longed to live in a free world. At the tender age of 18, while at a swimming competition in Yugoslavia, she fled and crossed the border by foot into Italy where she gained political asylum. She ultimately gained sponsorship and eventual citizenship in the US. Her shear tyranny of will instilled in me a desire to become a strong woman, one who was a master of her own destiny. The second motivating driver was my father, who also escaped to the US from Romania. During my early childhood, he descended into the grasp of alcoholism, and along with that came a storm of emotional and physical abuse until my parents divorced. This experience drove me to want to become an advocate for people who were suffering through terrible situations. 

Becoming a physician has defined me for the past 16 years of my life. I sacrificed a lot, but what I gained in return was extremely rewarding. I gained the ability to take quick action to save people’s lives, and the experience to help those with serious neurological diagnoses work through and understand their illness. I’ve been so privileged to bear witness to such miracles.

I’ve also witnessed tragedies, more often than the miracles, to be honest. I had a patient once. His name was Dan. He was an old veteran. He was soft spoken. His long, gray beard reminded me of a monk. However, his arm tattoos, and leather jacket that always smelled of cigarette smoke suggested his life was probably quite the contrary to holy. Dan had myasthenia gravis, a neurological disease in which the immune system attacks receptors on muscles, and as a result causes weakness, vision problems, and difficulty breathing.  But Dan wouldn’t let his disease hinder his love for life. He was an artist. He created huge colorful murals that often related to his experiences with his disease. One day while I was on the hospital neurology service as a resident, Dan came to me with rapidly worsening weakness and difficulty breathing, caused by acute worsening of the Myasthenia Gravis. His speech was severely slurred and he could barely lift his eyes to see me. I admitted him to the hospital, and quickly started him on an infusion of a powerful immunomodulating therapy.

After a few days of treatment, he told me he could feel himself regaining strength. He was itching to go back to his artwork. He had an art show lined up the following week. On the second to last day of finishing his treatment, I evaluated Dan and determined he has returned to baseline strength. I assured him he would be leaving first thing the next morning after his last infusion. The next day, I was intent on keeping my word. I walked into the hospital, and the first thing I did was I look into his chart to get his discharge paperwork ready. What I saw almost floored me. Over night, Dan had suffered an unexpected heart attack and subsequent cardiac arrest. The overnight on call team was unable to revive him.

I encountered many heartbreaking stories like Dan’s throughout my residency training. I initially thought nothing could be more satisfying than becoming a physician. But ultimately nothing had left me feeling more powerless than witnessing people suffer and not being able to do enough.  

My reality transformed from one of a strong sense of purpose to one of nihilistic hopelessness, and I descended into very dark territory. During my darkest moments, my husband gave me a book as a gift, called Maps of Meaning, by a psychologist named Jordan Peterson. In reading that book, I experienced an epiphany. I discovered that descent is something we all go through in life, but it is not to be feared. I learned that we have to face our own demons voluntarily and realize what we are capable of. And when we do so, we learn that life is not meaningless.

Because of my journey into the darkness and back, I am now able to see people through a similar journey. I am able to help them understand that while life may be full of suffering, it does not make life meaningless. Rather it is an opportunity to make life even more meaningful.

One of my favorite authors, Victor Frankl, wrote in his book called A Man’s Search For Meaning, that ‘when a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; no one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

All of us have hardships. All of us have extremely difficult and painful moments in life that we have experienced or will experience. Each and every one of us has two options: either to allow ourselves to be a victim of the misfortune we endure, or to rise above it. To stand tall. To take responsibility. And to acknowledge that each and every action that we take has an impactful meaning on the universe, those around us, and ourselves.