Zach Duarte, M1, Class of 2022
II Timothy 1:7
For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
I remember vividly the moment I decided to become a physician. “Why me God?” I cried out into my pillow as my brother was taken to yet another mental institution. Another holiday ruined. Another cold Thanksgiving turkey. Nothing quite haunts me like the sunken eyes of my mother, looking for answers, and finding none. I cried.
You’d think that for as much time as I’ve spent sitting in psychiatric hospitals as a child that I would be a patient myself. Over time my attitude began to mirror those around me. In other words, I hated it. “Why can’t my family be normal?” I screamed as I slammed my hand against my bed. There’s nothing as utterly depressing as the gray walls, gray carpet, and the multitude of locked gray doors as a constant reminder that people inside are not only a prisoner of the mind but of the system too.
“You should give up on him and let the state take care of him.” Those were the words spoken to us by his physician. “I can’t do this anymore,” I wailed. I mean, it would be simpler. The easier path. Forget the past. Worry about the future. A rug is a beautiful place to sweep your problems under, isn’t it?
Why is it that mental health issues are so looked down on by society? Why do people hide their depression and anxiety? Why did I, as a child, try to pretend my family was perfect. Even then I saw the cracks. I heard the whispers of those around me talking about my brother: “Isn’t he crazy?”
“What’s the reason, God? I just don’t understand.” I let out a breath. Exhausted, I laid there silently. I honestly can’t remember another time in my life where I had such absolute mental clarity. The fog of emotions and pain seemed to lift from my conscious – my thoughts became clear and everything for a moment seemed to stop. I hated everything about the mental health system. I hated the way my brother was treated. I hated the dark facilities. I hated the people taking caring of him. I hated the police who took him to the hospital. I hated the stigma from those around us. Maybe most importantly, I hated the physicians.
I had been through these motions before, wishing for things to be better, but this was different. Something clicked in my mind. For 10 years I saw what I believe was the worst of what the US healthcare system had to offer. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it, but at that very moment, lying there in the silence, my face red, my voice hoarse from crying – “God is this what you want me to do? Do you really want me to become a physician?” I couldn’t change all the turmoil my brother went through, but maybe I could help others from having to suffer the same fate. Maybe I could use all these bad experiences and use them for others. It was like a fire, a determination, I have never seen in my life until that moment came over me. All of the things I hated became targets for change. All of the problems facing my brother became mountains to climb and eventually conquer.
A lot has changed since I made that decision when I was about 17 years old. My brother has gotten the treatment he actually needs and is doing exceptionally well, thanks in major part to a truly great physician who cared for him and my family. In the time since, my appreciation for just how high the mountains are to climb, the stigmas to break, and the social barriers to overcome, has only increased my determination. It’s almost ironic really – a kid who hated physicians is now working to become one.
Somewhere along the way someone pointed out the verse in II Timothy 1:7. I cried after reading it. Not out of anger or spite, but because of the hope it gave me. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. Those words might mean more to me than anything else I know. To me it’s a promise of what’s to come – that one day I will be able to talk with my brother the same way I do with anyone else. No more medications. No more disease. No more fear.
Why am I writing this? Maybe it’s a personal reminder to myself (and hopefully others) that we’re all here for a reason. As I sit here memorizing yet another pathway, another cancer mutation, and plenty of trivial facts I’ll only need for Step 1 – I need to remember that I didn’t come to medical school to take tests. I came here to make a difference. Sometimes through the busyness of the year, I lose sight of that. Medical school isn’t the end of my journey; it’s merely a brief moment in it. When I reflect on the past – how far my brother and I both have come – I take comfort in God’s plan for myself going forward. I know I’m in the right place. I know there will be struggles. I know there will be more mountains to overcome, but even so, I will carry the words of II Timothy in my heart as I work towards a brighter future.