Illustration by Angelika Manhart
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

Mentally Unaware and Physically Unable

By Bassir Caravan

I knew I wanted to be a doctor a few years ago when my mother was dragged out of our living room on a stretcher. I was just returning from school that afternoon, and settling into my room when my sisters came to me, teary-eyed, and said, “Mom is sick.” I thought to myself, “She’s always sick.” The tears in my sister’s eyes, however, convinced me it was different this time.

I rushed to the living room, where I saw my mother gripping her temple as if she were certain her head was going to explode. She was suffering from a severe migraine. My mother’s medical history is full of chronic maladies, and she often does not feel well, but this was different. It sounded different. “Bassir, help me, help me,” she cried. I had never seen her in such distress before. I felt powerless to help her. I was confused. I was uncertain.

I took a survey of the room. There lay my mother, on the ground and screaming in pain. On the other side of the room were my grandparents, both struggling with their own afflictions. My grandfather was sitting in his armchair, clueless and unaware, protected by his thick Afghan wool blanket and his dementia. My grandmother was seated right next to him, and couldn’t have looked more afraid. She was mentally aware and but physically unable to help, given she had mild paralysis in her legs. In that moment, I truly appreciated the value of health. Who would I rather be? I thought. My grandmother or my grandfather? In my helplessness, I felt a bit like both.

I called an ambulance, and took my first trip to the emergency room (ER) with my mother. Once she was settled in a hospital bed, I thought we had seen the worst of it. But the headache got more severe, and despite being in the safety of a hospital, I felt even more scared. She grabbed my hand and begged me to kill her. She was in so much pain that the idea of death seemed to be the most attractive end. I was terrified, but did my best to console her as we waited to be seen.

I took a good look around the room. The walls were dirty beige, with hideous tiles lining the floor. The beds were separated only by flimsy, similarly dirty beige curtains. The patients were a mixture of mentally unaware and physically incapable, and it reminded me very much of my living room.

It was a while before my mother was seen. I was growing increasingly anxious by how useless I was to her. The most useful thing I did was call my father. My father showed up to the ER confident, and completely aware of the situation. He was neither an emergency room physician nor an employee of that particular hospital—but he was a physician. Thus, his ability to remain calm and collected.

He knew my mother’s medical history and discussed with the doctor in the ER the treatment of her pain and the management of her symptoms. He refused the cover-your-ass-medicine brain CT scan. He saved my mother from further discomfort and, most important, comforted her. The mood shifted so quickly that I took a photo of my father tenderly attending to my mother to commemorate the moment I wanted to be a doctor.

Medicine is not a career one chooses based on a singular experience on a singular day. It’s a huge life choice. Sure, many have stories like my own about a family member’s sickness or an encounter with the healthcare system that made them want to take up arms in the battle against disease. But these stories are not where these decisions are ultimately made. For me, it was a lifelong interest in fighting that powerlessness that comes from ignorance about the human body. That day exemplified this powerlessness, and on that day I decided I couldn’t do anything but medicine.
[2016] Bassir Caravan was born and raised in New York City to a family of Soviet-Afghan War refugees, and is currently a second-year medical student at the NYU School of Medicine.