Liana Meffert


January 21, 2022

It's the third day of my internal medicine rotation. We are caring for an older man with cancer, which has metastasized to his spine. Doctors still aren't sure where the cancer is from, but it's here, making its presence known in waves of unrelenting pain. We've put the man on an opioid schedule that I've written out so he knows when he can ask for more.

On prerounds one morning, he turns the questions on me. "Now, are you a Miss or a Mrs?" He glances at my bare fingers, stethoscope still in hand. Maybe it's a sign of progress that I'm thrown by the question. I pause. I've thought only of being a doctor. That's why I'm here now, listening to his chest and lungs, evaluating his pain to report back to my team. I reply, "Actually, I'll be a doctor soon," and head for the door.

When I first met M, he was drawing unsaturated fatty acids on the whiteboard. For the uninitiated, they look like a series of zigzags you might find on some '80s-themed wallpaper. The zigzags matter because they are key cell membrane components that keep molecules and ions inside or outside the cell. He was kind and patient and, what's more, I sat through an entire tutoring lecture on fatty acids.

A week later, I asked him out to coffee because more than being bold (though none would deny it), I am impatient and curious. We sampled tea at this coffee shop, which turned out to be our first date. He wouldn't drink coffee regularly until we'd been dating for over a year, and even now, a few sips from my cup is plenty.

When I think about challenges we've been through, what comes to mind is the first of a series of medical licensing exams. This test is now pass/fail, but at the time I took it, your score could become the deciding factor in getting into the specialty and school of your choice.

Two weeks before the test, I stopped sleeping. For the first time in my life, I stayed up entire nights, staring sleeplessly out the window. The day after one such night, M and I drove to the testing center. We peeked through the windows like we were framing the place, and we were in a way, as we strategized for the day that had monopolized my life and mind for the past several months.

It also happened to be my birthday, and we picked up Mexican food on the drive back. The roads were powdered with fresh snow, and my eyes were already watering from the sleepless nights, the stress, and, ultimately, what would become my worst birthday ever, when a semitruck leaned into our lane, forcing our car off of the road.

M was driving, and there was a large dent on his side of the car where the semi had made contact. It took a few moments to register what had happened, but when I did, I curled into a fetal position in the passenger seat, shaking with nerves and cold.

M exited the car to address the truck driver who had just emerged from the cab of his semitruck, shaking his head in denial. The snow didn't let up and stray snowflakes escaped into our car.

I listened to M's voice: calm, measured, I've got this. There are moments in life when you throw in the metaphorical towel and crumble — if only for a minute, an hour — and if you are lucky, you have found someone who loves and who picks up that towel and wraps it around you, as warm and fresh as a sheet from the dryer.

There are many ways to challenge a relationship. You can travel, have a baby, lose someone you love, weather a pandemic. No one said dating in medical school was easy, but if you want to know what your relationship is made of, medical school provides optimal testing grounds.

I'm thinking of the months we spent shuttered in my studio apartment, removed from our regular rotations, unmoored. My best friend, my confidant, my teacher and student. Our life became small and robust. This is the real twist in my love life, though: Unlike those before him, I didn't want him to leave.

As a medical student, half of the time I am too busy or sleepy or stressed to really look at the person beside me. But then I wake up, and he's smiling because he's caught me giggling in my sleep again. I carry us in my pocket, tangible as a worry stone, weathering time like water.

Now we are interviewing for residency positions. This March we will open twin white envelopes announcing where we will go and how close, or far, we will be from one another. I could be scared, but I'm not.

He doesn't know that I know he bought a ring several months back from the family-run jewelry store downtown. I've resisted searching for its hiding place. He already knows I'll say yes, and I already know I'll say yes, because look how far we've come; look how far we have to go. I might even be a doctor by then.

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About Liana Meffert
Liana Meffert is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine. She has previously been awarded an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, Stanford's Irvin David Yalom Literary Award, University of Iowa's Carol A. Bowman Creative Writing Award, honorable mentions for the William Carlos Williams Poetry Award, and the F. Sean Hodge Prize for Poetry in Medicine. Her work has been featured in The Examined Life and The Healing Muse, among others.


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