Katherine Hendley

I think I read somewhere down a LinkedIn-sponsored clickhole that men will apply for a desired position if they meet ~60-70% of the listed requirements for the job, whereas women will only apply if they meet 100% of the listed requirements. With this statistic in mind, I applied for the medical internship at Save-a-Child’s Heart. I may not have completed a full year of medical school YET, but I met the remaining requirements and was fully prepared to be turned away or referred for a volunteer position in the program house if I couldn’t yet cut it in the hospital.

Before I continue, a little about me: my life looks a lot different than it did a year ago. I had just moved to New York to begin a Postbac Pre-med program after a 6-year stint in operations and logistics. I enjoyed my co-workers, and being good at my job, but I had no real love for the business world. As I felt my soul grow restless in my career, I stumbled upon the Postbac program at Columbia and prepared to uproot my life to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a research physician. A million questions raced through my mind – was I just stalling on finally growing up? Was I too old? Would I pass out at the sight of blood? I could barely watch Game of Thrones without flinching, so I was pretty nervous about that detail. Nevertheless, I needed to try, so I pressed on, sold my house in East Atlanta, cashed out my 401k and moved my two dogs and myself to a 5-story walk-up in the heart of Morningside Heights.

As much as I enjoyed the break in my routine, I underestimated the rigor of the program and the hard work and dedication required to be successful as a full-time student again. In the midst of my transition, my life turned upside down once again when my father passed away suddenly of a stroke in February at the age of 61. Heartbroken and full of self-doubt, I stumbled blindly through the rest of the semester. When I discovered the SACH program, I felt as if a light switch had been turned on, and determined to complete the application by its deadline, which happened to be the day of my father’s funeral. To my surprise and delight, I heard back from the program head, Anna Kos, immediately, went through the interview process, and was admitted to the program for a 2-week stay in July. Refreshed by the compassion and amazing opportunity ahead of me, I looked forward to the journey ahead to Tel Aviv.

Dr. Aki Tamir, one of the co-founding doctors at SACH, said that “medicine is not just a science. It is intuition and faith” (A Heartbeat Away, 2015). Over the 2 weeks I would stay at the program house and at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel, I would come to know a little more clearly just how true that statement is. When I arrived at the SACH house the morning of July 7th, I was immediately struck by the kindness of the volunteers and staff who welcomed me to the program house and got me acquainted with the daily routines at SACH. Shaida, a 6-year-old girl from Kurdistan, noticed my wolf tattoo (an homage to Game of Thrones), pointed, and exclaimed, “Fox! I love you!” While communicating with the mothers and children of different nations was challenging, the consistent, underlying message was universally the same: all are valued, cared for, and loved here.

After a quick tour and an afternoon with the kids running around, playing, and being kids, Anna took us to the hospital for another tour and an overview of our hospital shifts. When we had a moment to sit down for lunch, Anna’s first question to me was about how I was doing with my grief, and letting me know that the organization was there for me to support me in any way I needed. These small moments of thoughtfulness would come to characterize my time at SACH and the organization’s overarching commitment to compassion to all. It was both humbling and healing to experience such kindness in the midst of obstacles and pain, and ultimately catalyzed a shift in my thinking from “why me” to “why them” – a necessary change to move forward and continue to walk out my path and desire to give something back to the world.

“Don’t come in until 9 or 9:30 tomorrow…we have 3 routine procedures. We will take lots of measurements. Nothing too exciting,” Dr. Saggi assured us.

Thankfully, the other interns and I decided to show up early anyway and were not disappointed in doing so. Indisputably, there was no shortage of new and exciting medical knowledge for me to absorb, but the clinical and professional passion I observed next would forever change my view of my developing role as a future physician:

Dr. Saggi led one of the SACH fellows through the balloon dilatation, and the entire lab seemed to bubble up as he oversaw the doctor’s execution of and leadership during the procedure. Unfortunately, the patient’s condition was worse than anticipated, and Dr. Saggi recognized that to save this girl, more would need to be done. In a moment, Dr. Saggi took over, indicated to the team that the rest of the procedures for the day were canceled, and settled in as Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” played over the loud speaker. He worked tirelessly for 7 hours to successfully open Jasmin’s pulmonary arteries in such a way as to ensure her chances for receiving future surgery to completely heal the hole in her heart were secured.

Admittedly, I was completely ignorant of the doctors’ impressive backgrounds when I arrived, and after learning more about their respective backgrounds, I was even more humbled by the generosity of spirit and consideration they showed everyone with whom their paths crossed. “Have you eaten yet today?” was a question the doctors asked us interns consistently – a testament to their other-centric ideologies.

Tuesday’s at SACH far and away provided the widest range of patient and provider experience I observed during my internship. Palestinian children and their caregivers were bused to and from the Edith Wolfson Medical Center to receive life-saving cardiac care and often, medication, inaccessible in their local communities. With emotions running high, translators and doctors alike buzzed from room to room, answering questions and relaying information as needed. As I observed the examinations, I was struck by the seriousness of the illnesses these children were facing with utterly mind-boggling bravery and grit. When I mentioned to Dr. Aki that I was overcome by their strength, he responded, “yes, but they have no choice.”

SACH18

My final day at SACH was bittersweet. I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to observe a surgery, and I had resigned myself to finding out whether or not I would pass out in the OR to a later date. I had once again underestimated the conscientiousness of the organization. Dr. Lior and his stellar team of OR nurses and techs went above and beyond to ensure that I had that experience. As I entered the operating theater, I felt as if every cell in my body had begun vibrating as the flurry of activity began, and of course, the surgeon’s preferred playlist, including Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World” began to float through the air. Andy Tolobua, a 15-year-old boy from Solomon Islands, was to have an aortic valve repair – his second surgery with SACH. Being a Jehovah’s Witness, the surgical team wanted to respect his family’s wishes not to use another person’s blood unless absolutely necessary. Much to my amazement, Dr. Lior activated the team around him to repair Andy’s valve while still talking the other intern and myself through the procedure and his decision-making process whenever possible. I was completely overcome by the life-changing experience, and was humbled to have been able to participate.

After the surgery, I watched Dr. Lior comfort Mama Nesta with the story of Andy’s successful surgery, and was struck by his professional and compassionate bedside manner –which left Mama Nesta relieved and informed of the particulars of her son’s procedure. When I let Mama Nesta know that I had been able to get some photos of the surgery during observation, her face lit up as she informed me that God had answered her prayers to be able to see some of the surgery, and I happily forwarded them along for safekeeping in her WhatsApp before her son awoke and discovered his mother’s very natural desire to have been THERE for the surgery.

“Leaving so soon?” Dr. Lior turned to me and asked, and I felt my stomach drop when the weight of his words finally hit me. “Don’t give up, and don’t stop listening to Joni Mitchell,” Dr. Rachel said as she hugged me goodbye – a reference to her observation that I looked a bit like Joni Mitchell while I was observing a 2-week old patient on ECMO in the PICU unit the previous week. Although my two weeks at SACH had passed in a flash, I left Israel with countless memories, newfound friendships, and a renewed spirit of confidence in continuing my path to medicine. More than this, my time with the organization renewed my faith in humanity and belief in compassion and love in an often frightening and chaotic world.

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