Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

Hold On to What Makes You Whole

Sarah Mongiello Bernstein, M.D.

Blackness covers the paper in its entirety. Hunched over, charcoal stained fingertips splayed out in front of me, I exhale and my saturated breath evokes miniature tornadoes. The fragrance of warm charcoal engulfs my olfactory bulb and my temporal lobe explodes with images of the past. I am transported back to scraped shins guarded by starched, white ruffled socks. My fingertips awaken with the memory of smeared purple chalk on warm summer cement and the velvety caress of red and yellow tulips. I am home again, where the earthy scent of newly piled mulch mingles with the syrupy sweetness of golden honey suckles. Once more I am utterly consumed with the wonder of this world.

Reality snaps me back to the present where I collide with the onslaught of images I wish I could forget. The gray, lifeless, meconium stained baby, his limp body lifted from his mother’s gaping abdomen; the fragile toddler with osteogenesis imperfecta, gasping for breath through delicate, broken ribs. The tearstained eyes of weary parents begging for hope I know I cannot give. I wince.

“Follow the light,” I chastise my anxious mind, placing the rubbery eraser over the obscured canvas. To create what I see, I must forget what I know. So I consciously clear my thoughts and begin reducing images to their most basic components. An intricate earlobe becomes a series of distinct but connected shapes: a small triangle here, a delicate arc there, each shape bleeding seamlessly into the next. My eyes flow unencumbered over the lines of my subject and I instinctively alternate light touch with heavy-handed pressure.

In time, I become lost in a feverish motion. The charcoal becomes an extension of who I am, as the line separating my fingertips from the tool become blurred. All of my energy – my anger, sorrow, hope and love – flow out from my core and back into this world. I allow myself to be swallowed by the emptiness and in doing so, find myself again. Little by little, out of the darkness comes light and when it is finished, I feel whole again.

Hold on to whatever makes you whole. In medicine, those things that make you human become your salvation.

While art and medicine have always been intricately intertwined for me, for almost a decade I didn’t paint or draw a single portrait. I had been told over and over again that I didn’t have time for hobbies and distractions. So I swapped painting class for organic chemistry and English literature for basic science research.

However, during my third year of medical school, the weight of board exams, long rotations and witnessing death first-hand became too much to bear, so despite a seemingly endless to-do list and limited funds, I went to an art supply store and purchased a set of charcoal and some canvas. The next day, I sat down and wrote the first article I would submit for publication.

I quickly discovered that this creative side of myself I had spent years stifling would open a myriad of opportunities for me. Physicians have always been instructed to control their emotions and maintain composure, but I’ve learned that refusing to acknowledge pain doesn’t negate its existence. Writing and drawing allow me to let the grief in, cradle it, own it, and then with a single breath, literally blow it all away.

If you’ve been told that you don’t think the way other physicians do, good for you. Patients don’t come in multiple-choice format and often there’s not one right answer. Having a unique perspective allows you to see things differently than others and will help you discover novel techniques. So breathe it all in. Acknowledge all the heartache, outrage, magic and infinite beauty that’s inherent in practicing medicine. Then, let it all go again.


About Sarah Mongiello Bernstein

new Sarah headshotSarah is a pediatrics resident at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a graduate of Emory University School of Medicine. She graduated with a B.S. and Masters in Health Administration (M.H.A.) from Cornell University and has worked as a healthcare consultant in the population management division. She is passionate about global health and enjoys working with high acuity patients in resource-limited settings. At Cornell, Sarah served on the Public Service Center’s Leadership Council and as founder and president of Cover Africa, an organization dedicated to eradicating malaria in Humjibre, Ghana. Today, Cover Africa has over 800 members and has donated over $100,000 to the fight against malaria.

Throughout medical school, she has sustained this passion for global health – serving as Vice-President of Public Relations for Emory Health Against Human Trafficking (EHAHT) and a researcher with Operation Smile in Guwahati, India where she helped to develop and validate a new tool that would allow physicians to objectively assess the severity of pre-surgical cleft lips and palates internationally. Long term, Sarah hopes to combine her passion for global health with the skills she has developed as a patient, consultant and clinician to improve patient access and eliminate costly inefficiencies in healthcare systems worldwide. In her free time, she enjoys acting, drawing and exploring new cities and cultures with her husband, Gehrig.


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