Dear Harvard Medical School,
I had the opportunity to meet a group of lovely Harvard medical students, all young women, staying at a dear friend's house for a weekend getaway near Miami. As I was putting Amos in his pajamas that evening, I was struck with an overwhelming urge to haul him over there and capture this focus group that I would most likely never have a chance to spring upon such a group uninvited or invited, for that matter. I had to go, if not I would always wonder what could have been.
We were met at the house by my dear friend, an Aunt to one of the students and she ushered us in as she too, was eager to hear what these bright young minds had to say regarding a topic we had discussed over our breakfast together that very morning. Casual introductions were made and I politely asked about their various geographic backgrounds and their imminent plans for specialities. After a few minutes of small talk, I broke the ice and shared a bit of my story, four children, including the mysterious Amos. I recounted the prose I had shared about a doctor that had used the R word in reference to Amos, emphasizing R WORD. Were they shocked? Horrified? Outraged? Smug even? I should have known, but hindsight was not revealed until later that evening.
The R word? They looked at one another quizzically and I was met with furrowed eyebrows yet blank stares, a group of brilliant medical students, yet visibly confused by what they perceived as my strange language. After a long moment, the first admitted she didn't know what the R word was and then another chimed in somewhat hesitantly, "I'm not sure either, but does it have to do with Obama?". My immediate reaction was one of disdain. My query of the R word did not spawn a clue, not even a subtle hint of recognition.
I could not have hidden my initial shock, real concern and even a touch of amusement, even if I had wanted to. Of course, I did not want to. Like a nice viper, I struck. I shared what the abbreviation stood for and now they understood, sort of, but not really. I tried to explain about sensitive mamas and hurtful words, the importance of thinking how to talk to families who would be grasping on the words of these young women over the next two years. One in particular showed sympathy to my cause and said their education had never broached that area, though time had been spent exploring sensitive issues like gender identification.
My moment of truth did not come until later that evening, born from another perspective shared from that exact conversation. I realized the ignorance of the R word was not rooted in mindful ignorance, students who had missed an opportunity to learn about sensitivity as it relates to families, or the best medical school in our country failing at something. No, it came from the wisdom of that same dear friend, the aunt of one of the students. Remember, she had ushered me in to ask my questions and sat quietly, listening and processing their careful voices. Her thoughtful words offered clarity and hope when I had walked away worrying that Harvard had dropped the ball.
This other perspective suggested that Harvard Medical School was in reality, more cutting edge than the world and within the limited scope of my natural thinking. The R word had likely been discussed she suggested, but probably twenty years before and I knew in an instant she was right. Though sharing the R word did not bring me the validation of the terribleness of the word I had hoped for, I was struck with the way they interacted with me, smiled at Amos, chased him even when he gravitated towards antique bowls placed on low glass shelves, and watched silently with smiles as he threw every well-placed magazine on the floor. They had been stacked neatly on the modern coffee table when we first arrived, and I caught not even a tinge of judgement in their understanding eyes.
They had proven themselves to be thoughtful and considerate, perhaps suppressing their elaborate language for the majority of our half an hour together so that I could follow their ideas and thoughts too. I had felt heard and had no doubts that their abilities would ensure family appropriateness beyond even my wildest imagination. Though that was not true either as 99% of Amos' physicians had been just as kind and understanding, polite beyond the necessary limits as they shared personal emails and cell numbers.
I had a visual image of one of these young women knocking on a hospital door to check on their patient, now a new mother. I imagined her walking up to the bed and talking to the mother, checking on her as she would any new mother, asking to hold the beautiful baby girl and commenting on her loveliness. A kind word of congratulations would be offered and perhaps a whisper to the birthday girl herself, how the world was her oyster and a shared prophecy for a lovely journey. No, she would not be bound by that extra chromosome. This imagery is but a figment of my imagination yet after talking to these bright, perceptive and friendly physicians, I expect nothing less. They knew that using terms like moon shaped face, retarded, dysmorphic, or deformity would be hurtful, descriptions that offered nothing except to deflate parents band cause hurt feelings.
These young women were the brightest of the next generation, ten or fifteen years behind me and they attended a school that did not mention the R word. In talking to them and realizing their amazing depth, I agreed with my dear friend, more perceptive than I, as she had quickly recognized one of the many reasons why Harvard was deemed the best. The lack of knowledge proved to be the most enlightening. Yes, surely the word retarded had been discussed and abolished on the enlightened campus many years before, laid to rest and taken its' place in history with terms like imbecile and moron.
I still think it is important to know the history of these words though, particularly the R word, and they had heard it from a forty year old mama who had shown up on their doorstep early one evening and shared her heart. The R word was no longer a mystery to them and yet, the knowledge of it would not likely change their future interactions with families. Their eyes and actions had offered love, support and encouragement. I had gone there wanting a promise they would never make that mistake and yet, I realized they were light years ahead of me. Thank you Harvard.