When the Training Wheels Come Off

In the spring when stay-at-home orders were mandated, it seemed like everyone discovered hobbies to keep themselves occupied. My family participated in zoom workouts, friends delved into DIY home improvement projects, and others were whipping up Food Network-worthy dishes. With the warm temperatures preceding the mugginess of summer, I couldn’t help but enjoy the weather outside and fell in love with biking all over again. I remember when I first learned to ride a bicycle at 5 years old. After weeks and weeks of tumbling over, I thought it was impossible to balance upright without the two additional wheels in the rear. Until one day, that frustration transformed into exhilaration as I rode on two wheels for the first time.

As I get older, I find myself reflecting on my youth frequently. I had quite the childhood and one I’m very fond of. But there was one aspect I despised with passion. Far too often, I was in the middle of something fun when it all came to a screeching halt as I heard my mother’s voice barking at me to complete my chores. The vacuuming, sweeping, taking out the trash, and mopping were all tedious, but the activity I dreaded the most was reading Bible passages in Vietnamese. As I struggled to pronounce words and lacked any sort of rhythm, I was so frustrated and questioned why I needed to learn Vietnamese at all. I told my mom that I only needed to learn English because we were living in America; knowing Vietnamese would never help me get into college or secure a job. I’m sure my mother’s heart dropped upon hearing those words, but she never caved in to my incessant complaints and persisted in ensuring I remembered my native tongue.

Fast forward 20+ years, I now hop on any and every opportunity to speak Vietnamese when I'm at work. As an anesthesiology resident, I meet patients in the pre-op holding area before taking them to the operating room. Most patients are anxious about their surgery and about “going under." Imagine that anxiety, now multiply that by 10. I’m sure that’s how Vietnamese patients feel as they brace for surgery without understanding a familiar word around them. I get so excited to take care of these patients because I feel like I can offer them something so unique and valuable. Having the privilege to speak to a patient in his or her native language brings an overwhelming sense of comfort that no medicine could possibly provide. Merely asking “How are you?” in Vietnamese turns that anxiety into security and assurance that he/she would be well taken care of. Occasionally, they are so ecstatic that someone understands them that they just want to chat about life in general, even as we roll back to the operating room. They’ll ask me where I grew up, where my parents live, and if I’m old enough to take care of them. Seeing that smile and relief on a patient’s face is simply priceless, and it had nothing to do with medicine at all! It all came from something I learned long ago, something I didn’t have the foresight to understand at the time. I could have never imagined that those treacherous hours of reciting Vietnamese Bible passages would one day impact a patient’s life in such a profound way.

I now understand that all of those tedious tasks my parents forced me to do when I was younger was meant to prepare me for adulthood, a time when I would no longer have someone to show me the way. At the time, I thought chores were meant to cap the amount of fun I was allowed to have, but in reality, they helped me develop good habits that now frame my adult life. Those chores were metaphorically the training wheels, ones that I no longer need since leaving the parents' nest. However, life is a journey where learning never truly ends. Even if we become independent in some things, other aspects may still require those training wheels, and it's up to us to embrace that support, no matter how humbling it may be. For me, residency has been the greatest challenge in my life and it gets the best of me every now and then. Despite the long work days, overnight shifts, constant pressure and stress of patient care, I’m trusting that these trials and tribulations are training me for what’s next to come. Soon enough, whether I’m ready or not, those training wheels are going to come off and I’ll need to stay balanced and continue riding as life moves forward.