Trial By Fire

It was my first day of 30-hour call during my intern year. Anxiety welled up into my throat and my chest tightened and it was late into the night. My senior resident had long since gone to sleep, and I had no idea what to do. What do I do with a 60 year old man who fainted? I was paralyzed by fear of making a mistake, of missing something, of hurting someone.  It froze me to my hospital computer until 2 in the morning, struggling to cobble together a coherent note. I bit and peeled my nails, hoping for some divine instruction. At some point, I put together some flimsy plan, signed it and resigned myself to sleep. The next morning, it was evaluated by the attending physician, at what felt like being led out before a shooting squad. The mistakes I had made and the knowledge gaps present were glaringly brought to the light. It was so embarrassing and painful.

As a med student, I had flourished during my rotations with patients. My supervisors would remark about how advanced I was and predicted that I would do well in my next step in training, internship/residency. It was a shock to the system to have such a rough and painful first month in residency. I felt disoriented, overwhelmed and worst of all, incompetent. It was the mark of shame, pinned to my newly-minted white coat. I floundered that month and felt publicly labeled within the group.

It was my first brush with that desperately vulnerable place of feeling insufficient.

Brutal and emblazoned on my psyche, it was a dark, exhausted place, where I barely had the energy to look to God.

The next month came with a new hospital, new team leader, and new group of patients.  It was another session in disorientation. I recall thinking, “Great, one more place to feel lost and flailing.  Let’s get to it.” I once again struggled to make my way and was the weak link of the interns. In that place, I was surprised by firm kindness of my team leader.  She went over the practical basics of everyday hospital medicine that I had failed to grasp. It felt like being grasped by the hand and being pulled up into dry land. She was the unexpected and practical kindness of God, reaching down to equip me. I found my footing and started to find my way.

Residency is much like the furnace that pottery is baked in. As a med student, I had these Polly Anna like ideals and a basic form of medical knowledge. They were great fodder for interviewing for next steps, but were not sufficient when someone was gasping for air. I worked 30 hour shifts, 60-80 hours a week for 3 years, so that I would be in those chest tightening moments over and over again. And in those really dark places, the Lord provided and I learned.

A med school professor who used to say, “When you’re feeling overwhelmed and everyone is going crazy, go to the head of the bed and remember your ABCs. Airway, Breathing, Circulation.” When I ventured into new clinical territory, I learned to take a step back and go back to the basics. When feeling lost, I would go back to the beginning and prioritize problems, from there I learned to care for people.

During that chapter of my life, I was brought into people’s stories, and sometimes it was the realization of their worst fears. There was incredible vulnerability and connection in that place. I learned that people will surprise you, both in their resilient strength and hope and in their denial and selfishness. It is a lot to hold. I learned to ask questions to find out how they got there and also what motivated them. It was the first time that I learned to ask people’s goals for their lives instead of imposing what the textbook recommended. The questions of suffering and purpose, control and lack thereof came forefront. They were places to learn grace and lay before the Lord.

In that furnace, I was strengthened, charred, hardened and cultivated. I came out the other side a different person. I learned how to draw healthy boundaries. I was no longer soft and pliable, but I became equipped to practically care for a patient. My heart could better bear the weight of the others’ stress and fears, and I discovered there were places to offer kindness and compassion, and to point people to the Lord.

My hope is that as I continue to encounter dark places that I will have the eyes to see His kindness and transforming power.


Aimee is an Asian American physician, recently married to the love of her life.  She loves deep, honest conversation, being silly with her husband and pondering God’s presence in this broken world.  She is honored to contribute to Red Tent Living, but requests anonymity in respect for her personal and professional privacy. b