It was July 1997.
Maria C. and I had just started our third year of medical school, rotating on general surgery. We stood on evening rounds–it was already dark outside on this balmy summer night. The hospital hallway was quiet and half the lights were off. We visited a little old lady who had had surgery in the prior days. She looked frail, but also like she had been spry once. Her lips protruded the way my grandmother’s did when she took her dentures out at night. She wore a round fuchsia sleeping bonnet, a little askew atop her head. She looked half asleep, barely aware of our presence, and had slid down in the bed such that the pillow and blankets had effectively swallowed her.
We were tired, Maria and I. It was not a fun rotation for me. I had witnessed our attending throw a bloody sponge across the OR that month. He was not particularly interested in us, I don’t recall any direct teaching (but there could have been), and the sleep deprivation was killing me. But I had Maria. She always had a smile, always an encouraging word, and she loved surgery. Her energy held me up. We stood dutifully, trying our best to pay attention and learn something.
As we listened to the discussion of the nice lady’s plan of care, suddenly I heard a loud, resonant, and prolonged PPPPPPPTHTHTHTHAAAAAARRRRRRRRTTTT. Our somnolent charge had just passed the longest breath of colon gas I had ever heard, before or since. And it didn’t phase anybody. The team continued to discuss her plan of care as if nothing had happened. I don’t know, maybe they were encouraged, as flatulence is the first step to oral feeds and eventual discharge after abdominal surgery. They forged on without acknowledgement. I wondered if I had imagined it. But when I caught Maria’s eye, within seconds we could both barely contain ourselves. Maybe we were just slap happy from too little sleep, or we just needed something to break the tension. But it was too much, we had to step out. Back out in the dim hallway we laughed out loud as quietly as we could, to the point of gasping for breath, hanging onto the wall and each other to keep from falling down. Even today, 22 years later, I cannot help but smile at that moment. Either we went back inside after composing ourselves, or the team emerged eventually, I don’t remember. Rounds continued and I tucked away this little memory as one of the best bonding experiences of all my years in training.
The Class of 1999 returned to The University of Chicago this past weekend to celebrate 20 years since graduation. I had only signed up for a couple events, in my usual non-committal way. I arrived at the breakfast venue, a building that did not exist when we were students. I glanced over at the tables and saw only people much older than me, and my heart sank a little. Where were my peeps? Then at a back table an old friend stood up and waved, and my spirits lifted instantly. We ate and laughed, and shared photos and anecdotes of surly teenagers at home. As I had made no other plans that day, I met people again for lunch and we walked through campus, which I had not done in years. The peonies in the quad burst with color and fullness, welcoming us all back.
I’m so proud of our class. We are general internists and pediatricians, hospitalists, cardiologists, allergists, emergency medicine doctors, and orthopaedic surgeons. We do neurologic interventional radiology, microvascular plastic surgery, and private equity. We are medical directors, section chiefs, and NIH researchers; we teach medical students, residents, fellows and colleagues. We advocate for immigrant health and lead international research teams to win the war on disease. We are parents of toddlers and college students, single, married, and divorced. But mostly we are just older versions of our younger selves, in love with the science of medicine and driven by something deeper within to care for our fellow humans, relieve suffering, and make the world better for our having lived. This weekend gave us the opportunity to reconnect deeply on that level, to recall and relive those bonding memories tucked away all these years. I had a chance to catch up with classmates whom I had always wanted to know better in school. What a blessing.
Our specialties are widely diverse, as are our life experiences, before and since medical school. But we also share so much in common. Many of us have had painful experiences as patients or family of patients, and that has impacted our attitudes as physicians. We collectively recall the stages and transitions of training as both trial and reward. And everybody has something to say about the current, broken state of American healthcare. But the overarching feeling of the weekend was camaraderie and love. Emails poured in from classmates across the country and around the world who could not make it back; I count almost 60/100 of us included in our communications thus far. We were just waiting for the chance to find one another again.
In our current geopolitical climate of division, competition, and polarization, reunion is the antidote. In this vital ritual of humanity, we reconnect with those who knew us in a more innocent phase of life, when we bonded through shared struggle, with whom our diversity and shared experience are paradoxically complementary in the best ways. Our souls are fed by one another, in person, surrounded by food, back at our first professional home. Relationships long dormant stand revived, and we are lifted.
It occurs to me, in this lovefest of reconnection: How can we leverage this energy? What if we could sustain these bonds, reforged and hot in this moment? If we connected like this more often or regularly, across specialties, geography, and practice structure, how much better could we all be at what we do every day? How much more empathy could we have for those who don’t do what we do, whom we see as competing for resources or otherwise trying to undermine us? How would our patients feel in our presence? Our support staff? Our hospital leaders? Gatherings like this prove that we have the capacity to just be together, appreciate one another, and support each other with generosity and grace. So much potential for positive synergy among this group.
We have big plans for our 25th reunion, but I have a feeling our renewed relationships will find powerful expression long before then. So stay tuned, my friends. We are Pritzker Class of 1999, and we’ got work to do.