The “Aha!” Moment

By: Cory Anderson – Class of 2015

A couple weeks ago my friend and I were entertaining a group of med school interviewees when our discussion turned to “Aha!” Moments.  “Aha!” Moments are exactly what they sound like; they make you stop and think and they’re normally accompanied by some sort of realization.  They can be as simple as finally understanding that new concept in math class or as complex as realizing you need to completely change your lifestyle if you want to be happy.  Our moments dealt with when we finally knew that being in medical school was the right thing for us.

My “Aha!” Moment happened about two and a half months into medical school at a walk-in clinic where I was shadowing a doctor.  I had just finished taking a patient’s history and I was on my way to give the doctor my report.  As I left the room I immediately noticed a worried family holding a crying toddler speaking frantically with the receptionist.  The receptionist was hysterical and both the doctor and nurse were still busy with other patients, so I ran over to see if I could calm everybody down.

It turned out that I couldn’t.  The young boy was choking and his parents had no idea what to do.  As soon as they had noticed that he was choking they scooped him up and ran across the street from their house to the clinic.  The first thing I did was ask the parents to hand him over so that I could check his airway.  I couldn’t see anything so I did my best to reassure his parents that everything was going to be okay.  The fact that he was still crying and coughing was a good thing – even though it was scary – because it meant that he was getting air into his lungs and had a good chance of getting whatever was in his throat out on his own.  I asked his parents if they knew what he could be choking on but they had no idea.  It was as I was asking whether or not he had any toys or food around him at the time when suddenly he stopped breathing

What they don’t tell you when you’re taking all of those first aid courses before med school is how scary silence is.  One minute this toddler was screaming at the top of his lungs and the next there was nothing.  I’ll never forget the look on that boy’s face as he grabbed at his throat.  I’m almost ashamed to say I’m thankful that I didn’t have to look at it for very long.  I started abdominal thrusts and back blows, all the while telling his parents to call 911 because we didn’t have the equipment at the clinic to deal with him if he got worse.

By this time the doctor and nurse had come out of their patients’ rooms.  They offered me encouragement but it fell on deaf ears; the only thing I was thinking about was getting whatever it was out of this boy’s throat.  I don’t know how long I pounded on that kid’s back, but however long it was it wasn’t enough.  Eventually he started to go limp and passed out in my arms.  I did my best to stay calm on the outside but on the inside I was a total mess.  I thought this boy was going to die.  I wasn’t ready for this.  I couldn’t deal with this.  I can only imagine what his parents must have thought when I lay him down on the floor.

All of these thoughts raced through my mind in less than a second.  As soon as I had him on the floor I opened his airway to check inside before I started CPR.  Thank goodness that I did, because when I opened his mouth and looked inside I was greeted with a hot wheels hot rod.  I yelled at someone for tweezers and they brought them to me.  Then I carefully and quickly grabbed the toy car and pulled it out of the boy’s throat.  He started to breathe again just as the paramedics rushed into the clinic.

As the paramedics took the boy and his parents to the hospital for further evaluation I finally had time for the enormity of the situation to set in.  It had been a normal day at the clinic.  I was learning about how to interact with patients, asking them about their smoking history as we talked about the NHL lockout.  Things changed just as quickly as that silence was terrifying; one minute everything was fine and the next we had a toddler who was passing out from hypoxia.  It was in that moment that I realized why medicine was the right thing for me.

The fact that everything can change on a moment’s notice is a scary thought.  It’s part of what makes medicine so difficult.  But the look on that kid’s face as he was choking, the looks on his parents’ faces as I lay him down, those are looks that I never want to see again.  Eventually I’ll be able to fix some of the problems that make people look that way.  By getting involved in medicine, eventually I’ll be able to make a difference in people’s lives on a daily basis.  I know that not all of these situations have positive outcomes, but the relief on the parents’ faces as their son started to breathe again was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.  Those are the feelings that I want to inspire throughout my career as a doctor.  Those are the feelings that made me realize that what I’m doing is really worth doing.

3 thoughts on “The “Aha!” Moment

  1. Thanks for sharing that experience Cory – just remember these sorts of “aha!” moments as you continue down this path. Sometimes we can easily get desensitized to our environment regardless of how interesting things actually are. Trying to live in the moment of these sorts of scenarios will keep you on your toes and perhaps even be a good driver of your interest in becoming an increasingly better physician one day. Keep it up!

  2. I am really surprised that you risked a child’s life with your inexperience in medicine instead of calling for emergent help through the doctors and nurses. You have said that the clinic was not well equipped, but I have never had any training on equipment in any of my electives. Too many people want to be heroes.

  3. Ya, i don’t think this is you wanting to be a hero like the comment below suggests. I think you were scared, and you know the protocol and didn’t freeze. For airway obstruction, that’s fine. I assume you wouldn’t have made the same decision if you didn’t know what the problem was. The paramedics are clearly the best people to be working on that in between the hospital, but you did your best. I bet those parents remain grateful.

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