“It’s a simple procedure,” the surgeon said matter-of-factly.
I just gaped wordlessly at him as I tried to absorb what he was saying. Two days earlier, I had suffered a stroke. Today the cause was identified—a benign tumor in my heart that had partially broken off and traveled to my brain. The treatment was removal of the tumor, which would be accomplished through an open-heart procedure. Suddenly, at 30 years old, I found myself facing my mortality. Perhaps I was being melodramatic. After all, 70-year-olds routinely underwent this surgery and generally recovered without issue. Somehow, that still wasn’t reassuring.
As the surgeon continued talking, I found my thoughts drifting. I stared at the mole over his lip as he spoke. It reminded me of the mole my father had in the same spot. My father, the inspiration for the Asian “tiger parent,” had raised me to believe that mediocrity was the worst thing that could happen to me. He insisted that if I rose to the top of my career field, I would find happiness and fulfillment. And so, as any dutiful Asian daughter, I had spent the better part of my life working toward becoming a physician. At this point, I was nearing completion of my residency in psychiatry and internal medicine. (“Why not surgery?” my father had complained.)
I thoroughly enjoyed my work. But when you pour so much of yourself into your career, it leaves little time and energy for anything else. It had been years since I had been on a proper date, read a book for leisure or had a deep conversation with my sister. I had not yet met my soulmate, started a family or purchased my first home. I didn’t think I missed those things…until now.
Time marched on as it always does, and the day of surgery came and went without much incident, for all the agonizing I had spent over it. I was given six weeks convalescent leave, the majority of which I spent at home. I thought I might be bored without any work to do, but instead found that I relished the time, enjoying my mother’s home cooking, catching up with my sister and rediscovering my love for my childhood home. For the first time in a long while, I wasn’t hurrying on to the next thing. I was able to appreciate and be present in every moment.
One morning, as I watched the neighborhood children running around the playground, I was struck by the picture of pure joy before my eyes. I saw with childlike wonder a world of possibility, undisturbed by the burdens of society. At that moment, I had a sense of what life really meant.
It’s been five years since my surgery, and most days I forget that it even happened. The other day, my daughter noticed the scar on my chest.
“Mommy, what happened there?” she asked.
“Oh,” I said with a smile. “I had a change of heart.”
Sherrell T. Lam
Lives in: Bethesda
Hometown: Flushing, New York
What she does: Army psychiatrist and internist
How she got her start: “I realized that I loved to write in the fourth grade while working on a memoir of my life entitled ‘The First Ten Years.’”
Previously published in: Reader’s Digest, The American Journal of Medicine, Academic Psychiatry, Infectious Diseases in Clinical Practice, Military Medicine and The Journal of Organic Chemistry
Favorite place to write: “Sitting at the dining room table, near the large bay windows.”
Favorite author: Oscar Wilde