by Matt Zytkoskee
I’m slicing pizza into ridiculously narrow slices for my four-year-old daughter, Arya, and five-year-old-son, Finn, when they call me: “We’re playing ‘doctor’ Daddy!” they shout, and by “playing doctor,” they do not mean it in the way I thought of it when I was a kid. No, to them it’s serious business and, apparently, I’m being recruited to play the part of the patient. Soon, I find myself splayed out on the gurney—AKA the futon—surrounded by an assortment of plastic tools from a kid’s medical kit, surprisingly impressive in scope and sophistication . . . though the presence of a bone saw strikes me as a bit intense!
“Hurry Finn!” Arya shouts, “Get the shot. This is an emergency.” Interestingly, she’s actually found a legitimate issue and is pointing Finn toward a patch of eczema on the soft side of my upper arm.
Within seconds, he’s jamming a plastic syringe, with surprising force, into the center of the eczema. “Ow!” I squeak, no longer faking it, and realize that it actually feels like I’m at the doctor’s office. This thought makes me laugh, and Arya immediately hisses, “Shush. Don’t laugh. It’s not funny.” Next, she raises the bone saw, and I think “Oh shit! She’s gonna amputate,” and for some reason, this thought makes me laugh harder. Arya, extremely displeased now, says in the most serious tone she can muster, “Okay Finn, you’re going to have to sit on Daddy so he stops laughing”—the children’s version of a straight-jacket.
The fact that I am laughing at all in the midst of their doctor play is radically different from when I’d first found them playing doctor, after their mom died of brain cancer, a year ago. At that time, they’d hung a pretend IV line from the top of a chair and were taking turns connecting it to each other’s arms. To say that I had been horrified would be an understatement. Quickly turning, I’d fled to the garage before they could see me sobbing. Normally, I don’t hide crying, as modeling grief is important, but there was something different about this. As I sat in the garage, I thought about how often they had watched the chemo poison slowly drip into mommy’s body and how they had witnessed at least two of her seizures. I thought about how much time they’d spent in the oncology ward because their mommy was desperate to hold them—in fact, they were there so often that Arya would say, “Mommy’s house” any time we arrived at the hospital. I thought about how both kids had come along to the ER several times, something we had tried to prevent but became necessary in moments of crisis—gushing nose bleeds and extreme disorientation make it impossible to find a babysitter. So, when I’d found them reenacting aspects of this nightmare, it was more than my heart could take.
But as time passed, they continued to play doctor, and Arya even set up a little clinic to treat hurt stuffed animals. As a result, I got used to their medical scenarios, even those involving mock trauma. But it’s not until tonight, it’s not until I find myself laughing, it’s not until I catch myself looking upon their play with a sense of pride, that I realize something has markedly changed. But what?
Four months earlier, I’d sat at a conference table with seven of my medical students as they read their illness narratives aloud, narratives either about one’s own experience or that of a loved one. To my surprise, of the seventy students who cycled through the conference room in small groups, none had blown off the work, though their writing varied in style and intensity. For many, it was no simple task. Vulnerability can be incredibly challenging, and the fact that they were willing to share their trauma and suffering spoke to its importance in their lives and their desire to become healers. They were damned protective of each other, too. Classmates who broke down into tears were immediately validated, given tissues, and even hugged. Most surprising, perhaps, was the severity of the trauma many of them had experienced and the influence that medical intervention had on them. For some, the intervention had been horrific and their mission was to practice medicine differently. For most, however, a physician had saved their life or the life of a family member. In essence, a shocking number of the students had been severely wounded, physically and psychologically. However, these wounds became their motivation, their source of strength and empathy.
My eczema has now been officially treated, and as I rise from the hospital bed in hopes of procuring a cold beverage, Finn firmly pushes me back down and shouts, “Oh no, Arya! Daddy’s heart needs help!”
“Oh my,” I think, “they have no idea how true this is.” A second later, Arya attempts to deliver chest compressions—something I’d shown her, one Sunday afternoon, after she’d asked what a heart-attack was (the event that ultimately ended her mom’s life). I’m impressed with her technique, but when she leans forward to deliver the rescue breaths, I tell her, “Save that part for your teddy bears, honey.”
She pauses thoughtfully before launching back into frenzied action, “Okay Finn, grab the mouth tool! Look at Daddy’s teeth.” Playing the dutiful assistant, Finn jams one of those angled dental mirrors in my mouth, while Arya continues chest compressions. After a moment, Finn cheerfully announces, “No cavities.” The absurdity of getting a friendly dental check-up while simultaneously receiving CPR is too much for me, and I break into howls of laughter.
“Daaaddddyyy,” Arya whines, “you’re not playing right.”
“You want your patients to smile and laugh,” I tell her. “Believe me, it means they’re feeling better—or at least that they trust you.”
She purses her lips thoughtfully and, with a curt nod, says, “Okay. You can laugh now.”
In this moment, I realize what it is that’s changed, why the kids’ version of playing doctor no longer drives me to cry alone in the garage. While the game will always have an edge of grief, I now see blooming potential. My students reminded me that trauma can be a source of strength, of motivation to help others. And who knows, perhaps someday my children will help save someone else’s mommy. So, keep playing doctor, my little wounded healers.