Unfortunately, I can cry at pretty much anything.
I cry at contestants winning prizes on television quiz shows, black and white photographs of people I don’t know and an old man shuffling around Sainsbury’s with half a loaf of bread in a wire basket. Certain pieces of music can take me from completely fine to an absolute wreck in approximately thirty seconds.
When I was twelve years old, I asked my piano teacher if I could learn Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2. She refused my (rather ambitious) request and told me that I couldn’t play Chopin until I’d lived. At the time, I was hugely resentful and refused to practice arpeggios in an act of defiance. Now, sadly, I can say with absolute certainty that she was completely correct. I can also say with absolute certainty, that I sometimes feel as though I have lived just a little too much.
Of course, I don’t cry for the perfect combination of crotchets and quavers. Nor do I cry for the Carter family who have won a three week holiday in Barbados. I cry for the Kodak moments, the small snippets of other people’s lives which I take home with me every night and if you walk a circuit of any hospital, you will find many of these moments in wards and clinics and hidden behind paper thin curtains in anonymous cubicles.
I cry for the family who walk down the hospital corridor at 3am, pale and shocked, with their arms wrapped around each other in case one of them should fall. The man who sits in intensive care every day, reading to a wife who doesn’t hear his voice and will never hear his voice again. The mother who tries to sleep on a chair, with her hand reaching out through the bars of a cot. I cry for the little girl in the cancer clinic, who is told she doesn’t ever have to come back to hospital again and she can go to Disneyland instead and I especially cry when I think of the battle on her parents’ faces as they try to join in with her excitement.
I have collected so many Kodak moments over the years and they fill album after album in my head. I have so many albums now, I am beginning to wonder if I am cut from the right cloth to practice medicine.
I am told compassion is a wonderful thing. It’s something to be desired and applauded. But compassion will eat away at your sanity. It will make you pull up in a layby on the journey home, because you can no longer see the road for tears and it will creep through your mind in the darkness and keep you from your sleep.
In my first job as a doctor, an expected death occurred on the ward and I went to my consultant’s office in order to inform him.
“Lawrence has died!” I said, in a most unprofessional, junior doctor way.
My consultant didn’t reply, but continued with his very important consultant-type paperwork. After a few minutes, he looked up and frowned.
“Ah. You mean the bowel cancer in side room four has died?”
“Yes,” I repeated, “Lawrence has died.”
I hated him for the rest of the rotation. It’s only now that I realise even the most compassionate of physicians must trade at least a layer of their humanity in order to survive.
At the moment, this is not an exchange I am willing to make.
And if you are not able to make this sacrifice, you will continue to collect albums full of Kodak moments and burst into tears at Family Fortunes. You will also sometimes play Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2. over and over and over again to rid yourself of the layers of other people’s misery which fill your mind.
And the cloth from which you are cut will begin to suffocate you.