At fifteen, the worried child of an abusive, alcoholic family, I was hardly on the fast track for a successful career. By the time I had my school bus epiphany I smoked, included alcohol in most social events, and did more than my fair share of experimenting with drugs and boys. But there I sat on the bus that morning, staring out that window, hoping for a future. I was thinking about how much I loved biology class. It was the first time I had felt so connected with something much larger than myself. The more biology I learned, the hungrier I was to know more. But I wasn’t sure where that could lead me. And then suddenly, in defiance of my lifestyle and my gender, I connected the dots. I could be a doctor!
At a focal point somewhere just beyond that pane of glass, every ray of confidence and hope I could generate converged to form a marvelous image – an attractive, grownup me in a white coat, handily diagnosing illnesses, ordering tests, writing prescriptions. Happy. Successful. Respected. In the span of a few electrifying moments, a daydream had turned into a life plan – and an escape plan as well. I didn’t worry if I was smart enough. I never considered that I might not get into medical school or bothered to count the years it would take before I could step out into practice. I knew where I was going, and I thought that was all that mattered. I worked hard throughout high school and I babysat every chance I got for the family of a prominent Manhattan physician. Dr. Kevin Cahill, a product of Ivy League academia, talked to me about my future in medicine as if I were the most likely candidate in the world – thick eyeliner and dubious social circle notwithstanding. “You’re different, Maggie,” he said to me one time, his intellectual drawl reminding me of Mr. Howell on “Gilligan’s Island.” “When I look at you I see your strength.” If Dr. Cahill thought I was strongly constructed, then that was just further proof of what could slip by the notice of adults. But I was relieved that I could fool him, and pleased that he approved of me and my grandiose plans. One night when Dr. Cahill was walking me home he began to tell me about his upbringing in a large Irish Catholic family; he understood how difficult it was to grow up with an alcoholic parent. We both knew what he was referring to, but I was too stunned and embarrassed to respond. Never before in all my sixteen years, had any adult who had witnessed my parents’ mean brand of drunkenness– not aunts, uncles, grandparents, the priests who lived across the street, teachers, or neighbors – never before had any of them made even the most oblique acknowledgement to me of the daily horror show I called my home. Dr. Cahill must have wondered, as we walked on in silence, if his surprising story had fallen on deaf ears. It hadn’t, but it took a while to appreciate fully what had happened on that summer stroll. Without benefit of lab coat or beeper, Dr. Cahill had shown me what a real doctor could do. He wasn’t so easily fooled after all. He could look straight at pain without averting his eyes. He saw what needed healing without being told, and he said what needed to be said. The Medical Barbie of my school bus vision, no longer up to the task, stepped aside. I was beginning to flesh out my own image. I wanted to be able to do what Dr. Cahill could do. Dr. Cahill didn’t let go. He continued to discuss my medical career as if it was a foregone conclusion. He wrote letters of recommendation for me, arranged interviews, sent me autographed copies of the books he wrote. I don’t think I ever thought of him as a mentor. I do know that I was continually dismayed at his determination to be helpful. And I was subliminally empowered by the fact that someone like him saw something unique and valuable in someone like me. Fast forward a few short years and I was sitting in my apartment in Washington, DC, writing him a letter, sharing funny anecdotes about anatomy lab, and expressing once again my gratitude to him for helping to make my dreams come true. Read the original article at the Wing to Wing project. The Color of Atmosphere is available now.