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Big Dreams in a Small Place

The following is excerpted from Maggie Kozel’s book, The Color of Atmosphere: One Doctor’s Journey In and Out of Medicine. It appeared originally on the web at Truthout.org.

I remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I was a sophomore in high school, staring out beyond the rattling windowpane of a cramped, overheated school bus, when my future suddenly reached in through the window and grabbed me.

There was nothing exceptional about the morning until that moment. As usual, I had awakened to kitchen noises, riddled with tension, making their way through my bedroom wall.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Helen. The coffee’s weak.”

The sound of the metal coffeepot striking the stovetop was as effective as an alarm clock. Leaving my huddle of blankets and dog, I dressed for school like I did every weekday, hiking up the blue uniform skirt of Maria Regina High School, picking out socks from the flotsam and jetsam of laundry that seemed to cover every horizontal surface in the house. When the endless arguing that functioned as atmosphere in our home wasn’t too close or vicious to ignore, I grabbed a bowl of cereal. At the last minute, I always ducked into the grimy bathroom to sneak on some makeup before bolting out the back door.

There was usually time for a cigarette at the corner before the bus came. Once the bus hit the highway on its hour-long, nauseating drive toward the Blessed Virgin Mary, I craned and shifted in my seat for a bit of conversation. Then I started my homework. And for long moments I stared out the window, dreaming up a future.

At one time I had considered being a nurse, but that memory doesn’t really distinguish itself from my other dreams to be an actress or a teacher. The closest thing I had to a medical role model was a TV heartthrob, young Dr. Kildare, and in truth I really just wanted to marry him. The only doctor I knew growing up was Dr. Malinski, the town’s scary general practitioner. His tiny waiting room held little but a few plastic chairs, some outdated issues of Life magazine, and the warning smell of antiseptic. A louvered door separated the waiting area from the exam room; confidentiality slipped through those wooden slats as easily as the doctor’s thick Polish accent.

Continue reading this excerpt at Truthout.

Check out The Color of Atmosphere in our bookstore now.


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