I frowned at the dying rhubarb in my yard. When I had tenderly placed the roots in the soil six weeks ago, I had delicious fantasies of homemade rhubarb pie, served hot with french vanilla ice cream. I dreamed about rhubarb coming up to my knees, practically offering itself up as a sacrifice for my pie. But all thoughts of pie vanished as I stared at the pathetically wilted leaves. I heard the kitchen door slam, and my roommate came out to join my despondent reverie. After a moment of silence, in memory of the dying plants, she turned to me with a big grin on her face. ” So… how are you going to keep people alive?”
This was the first time I’ d lived in a house with a yard since leaving home 6 years earlier . I was so excited to enjoy my first garden. I’d filled every available box with carrots, peas, green onions, strawberries, watermelon, green peppers, squash, tomatoes, raspberries, and the ill-fated rhubarb. There was just one glaring problem; I couldn’t keep a damn thing alive. The carrots and green onions just teased me; they got about 2 inches tall, then they dug in their roots and refused to grow anymore. The peas were even more shameless – they muscled up to a proud 4 inches in height. Enthused by my success, I called them “The Mighty Peas” and babied them shamelessly. But after six weeks – right when I wanted to be eating them – they gave up and died. Those ungrateful peas. I gave them everything they ever wanted – water, compost…uh…fertilizer? Crap, I forgot the fertilizer.
Plant after plant, the same story was repeated. Strawberries – dead. Watermelon – dead. Mint – dead. Raspberries – dead. Raspberries and mint, by the way, are weeds. Farmers will burn down whole mint fields just to keep it from invading their crops. That’s right; I couldn’t even keep an invasive plant alive.
Understandably, I became very worried about my abilities as a budding physician. If I couldn’t remember to put fertilizer on peas, how would I remember to check my patients’ medications for interactions? If I couldn’t sense when my raspberry plants needed water, how would I know when my hypotensive patients needed fluids?
This concern crossed my mind one day when I was shadowing a surgeon who specialized in skin grafts for burn patients. As he ran a specialized instrument down the patient’s arm to remove dead skin – something I called “the skin-mower”- he struck up a conversation with the resident about gardens. “I had a garden in medical school,” the resident said. My ears perked up. “My plants were all so short, and they just didn’t produce very much. What do you think the problem was?”
The surgeon nodded wisely and took another swipe of skin off the patient’s arm. “They didn’t have enough water. In dry climates like this, they always need more water than you think.” Somewhere inside the recesses of my brain, a dusty old light bulb blinked on. I didn’t have to be born with a green thumb; it was something that I could learn.
A few months later, I was up to my eyeballs in flashcards, studying for the boards in a cold sweat. I grew increasingly panicked as card after card flashed before my eyes, each more bamboozling than the last. There was no way – absolutely no way – that I was going to be able to learn all that . Trimethoprim did what to the liver?! I was on the fast track to killing all my patients, and I couldn’t figure out why no one was stopping me. I kept waiting for one of my teachers to grab me by the scruff of my white coat and throw me out the back door.
Discouraged and in serious medical student funk, I wandered out into the hall on a “study break” – really more of a “study MAKE A BREAK FOR IT,” as I was actually making a mad dash to my car to try and escape the strain of school. However, I was stopped by one of my teachers. He asked me, very kindly, how I was doing, and I answered honestly. ”I’m really discouraged. I feel like no matter how hard I try, I can’t get high grades. And this is some important stuff – if I screw this up, I could really hurt one of my patients” He abruptly halted his purposeful stride down the hallway and turned toward me, leaning forward intently. “I know you feel discouraged, but you’ re really doing rather well. You know enough, and you will learn what you need to when the time comes. The important thing is to not give up. Just keep plugging away- you’ll be all right.”
When I arrived at home, I stopped by the remnants of my garden. A few of the plants were still bravely hanging on – we had beautiful yellow squash, growing faster than I could harvest. The cherry tomatoes tasted like a little burst of summer. And the green peppers were growing like mad. I had hopefully planted a little herb garden after everything else died; it was flourishing, perfuming the whole yard with its fragrance. I had planted it thoughtfully, deliberately. I added the correct amount of fertilizer, watered it appropriately, and placed it where it got plenty of light. My professor’s words were still on my mind as I tore off some parsley to have with dinner. I could keep something alive. And I was getting better at it as the season wore on. Next year, maybe I’d be able to keep the strawberries alive.
Hell, maybe someday I’ll even manage to keep a patient alive.