doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Tag: new york

City construction: my 2¢, and 12 words

280 miles: that’s the length of total scaffolding — aka “sidewalk sheds” — in NYC. I believe this outrageous number only because I read it in a 2017 New York Times article online, which features the picture above, of a site in Brooklyn. There’s even a New York City Buildings Department map of city scaffolding as of May 1, 2017 that tells you the status of each site, including whether it is unsafe. 280 miles. That would get me from NYC all the way to Washington, DC. Or one-third of the way home to Chicago. Hm …

New York City is constantly remaking itself. Constantly breaking down, building up. The end result might be a shimmering skyscraper. But the beginning and interim results, especially for those of us who live here, include road blockages, subway stoppages, sidewalk detours, rickety scaffolding, and a hell of a lot of noise.

For what seems like an eternity, construction crews have been working on the exteriors of the buildings in my apartment complex. Recently, they started on my particular building. A few days ago, I spied them (well, heard them first) hanging outside my living room window, banging and drilling and lord only knows what else.

It’s easy to grumble about all this, harder to smile. This morning though, as I stepped out of my building and peered onto the car-choked street, watching windshield wipers wrestle with the driving rain, I did smile. Because unlike those cars, unlike the drenched pedestrians doggedly pressing through this weather a block or two away (many of them walking dogs), I was dry. This thanks to the facade work, and to the unavoidable, unsightly scaffolding stretching up toward the grim sky.

The following 12 words — in the form of two 6-word stories* — capture both my grumble, and my smile. These are the two sides of the construction coin, the good and the bad, bedfellows tangled in a knot tighter than a surgeon’s wet dream.


Construction woe: brick-, brain-boring drills.

Construction pro: block-long tin umbrella.


*Note: click here to read my first post about 6-word stories, a now-viral phenomena initially begun by Ernest Hemingway.

Home again, home again, jiggity-jig

The Emirates Airbus A380, which provided a much more comfortable flight than the domestic ones I’m used to, also harbored a hidden danger, as I discovered when I got home.
Image from Wikipedia.

I’m home.

And it’s good to be home, although the re-entry process hasn’t been without its own challenges.

Jet lag is brutal no matter how you slice it. Not only that. While the Airbus A380 that carried me to JFK was airborne at 35,000 feet, something else was apparently airborne too. As an almost-doctor, I identify my invisible assailant as an aspiring virus, one that must have targeted me while I tossed from side to side in my barely reclining seat. At least I had the aisle.

I’m gradually coming out of the viral haze, and starting to tackle the jet lag.

One thing — one day — at a time. It’s a good mantra for medical school, and for life in general.

I have two weeks left in this four-month research block. Along with continuing to recover my scattered faculties and resetting my sleep schedule, I’ll be entering my data and putting together a “Work in Progress” presentation on what I’ve done so far.

While the trip is fresh in my mind, I’ll also be posting more thoughts, reflections, and photos. I found so much to write about while in Uganda, but simply not enough time to write it all down in the moment. When an essay idea hit, but when I was short on time or energy, I’d hurriedly type a partial draft or even *gasp* an outline. (Normally, I am loathe to write outlines, and have been since I was in sixth grade, when my language arts teacher, Mrs. Piper, forced the cumbersome process on us.) When I didn’t have my laptop handy, I’d scrawl thematic threads in one of the three pocket notebooks I brought with me. A reporter is NEVER without her notebook and her pen, and she always brings spares, just in case. So stay tuned.

This is not the end of my project, though. January and February of 2019, I have two more months fully dedicated to it. At that time, I’ll be more formally analyzing my data, compiling results and conclusions, and writing my report. I’m sure I’ll have more to write about then as well.

Thanks to all of you who have been following and commenting on my jaunts through rural Uganda. As a writer, sharing my experiences is important to me. It’s a creative outlet. It also helps me process and reflect. I find this crucial all the time, perhaps especially so in a foreign country where it can take extra effort to make sense of the world around you.

As they say in Uganda: Weebale. (Thank you.)

Missing New York City, for an unexpected reason

Brevity is not my strong suit. Just ask my editor at The American, the online magazine for which I write a monthly column called Bio-Lingual.

But I’m working on it. And Uganda is helping.

A week and a half ago, a surprise reptile encounter inspired another one of my six-word stories, Hemingway style (only my second ever; I penned the first in January).

Today, I find inspiration for another brief burst of prose from the local schoolchildren:

I miss NYC. It’s quieter there.

One of the chickens that roam the yard in front of the guesthouse here in Naggalama, scurrying away as I snap a picture. A sign of a peaceful countryside, right? Sometimes, yes. But not this week.

I never thought I would call NYC “quieter” than anywhere else, much less rural Africa. For me, the countryside in any country connotes the cheerful sounds of birds chirping and bugs buzzing. Naggalama has these. Here I also hear roosters crowing in the morning, and the tap-tap-tap of hammers as men build a new home for the nuns. (I don’t mind the hammering; it’s an improvement over the jackhammers the workers are using at my New York apartment complex right now.) Sometimes the sounds of choir practice waft over from the church down the road. Or I will hear the voices and laughter of children from the secondary school nearby.

This week, it’s been more than their voices and laughter. Much more.

I think it started Monday morning. I was awake, but enjoying the fact that I didn’t have to jump out of bed. I could lie there under the sheets, in peace, and just be. This is a luxury when you’re a medical student.

Then came the bass.

thump – thump – thump

I rolled over and checked my phone. Just after 7 a.m. What was going on?

I closed my eyes again, hoping the sounds of music and exuberant singing would fade. They did not. They got louder.

After 5 minutes, I got up. It was too much, even wearing my earplugs, which I sleep with every night.

The music and singing were almost constant that day. When I last checked the time, it was 11:50 p.m., and they were still going at it.

Yesterday, I learned that this is the last week of the term for these students, which means they have a full week of singing, worshipping, and celebrating. Essentially a week-long party. I’m sure it’s loads of fun for them. Not so much fun for those of us living next door.

In New York City, I frequently bemoan the noise. The cabs constantly beeping, the clamor of construction and traffic. But my little 1-bedroom apartment, which faces an inner courtyard rather than my busy street, is surprisingly peaceful. This week, I’ve been reminded just how peaceful.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the kids are having fun. I remember how excited I was at the end of a high school semester, so I don’t begrudge their celebration. Heck, my friends and I certainly made plenty of noise in our day. And sometimes I still do, like when I’m listening to a new album from one of my favorite bands.

Thankfully, I’ve figured out how to manage the noise while the party continues. When it’s too loud for me to concentrate on my work, I shove in those purple foam earplugs, even during the day. I’m wearing them now, as a matter of fact.

Even so, I do anticipate a sigh of sonic relief when I get home. After I’ve lugged my two overstuffed suitcases up the stairs, and after my heavy apartment door clicks shut behind me.

Then I will close my eyes, and as Depeche Mode coos: Enjoy the silence.

Home-grown exotics

A few days before leaving for rural Uganda, I had an exotic adventure right in my own backyard. I trekked out to the Bronx to visit the New York Botanical Garden, one of my favorite places in the city. It’s always a fun trip, and I walked through some of my favorite haunts, like the ornamental conifer garden. But I made this particular visit to see the annual orchid show, which would conclude while I was out of the country. This week was my last chance.

The show didn’t disappoint. I ooooohed and aaaaahed as I made my way through the greenhouse, stunned by the magnificent and many colors, shapes, and sizes. Some blooms hung in clusters from trees; some strutted in giant pots on the ground; others wound their way like strands of delicate glass beads around a gigantic frame of green bamboo-like rods, a structure which reached up for the ceiling, and for the sun.

My photos don’t do these beautiful blooms justice. But they give you a glimpse at what the show was like:

Outside, the Japanese apricot trees (below) were blooming, as were the azaleas. It was early April, too early for many of the spring bulbs, but some precocious daffodils (also below) and even a few tulips had popped up to say their spring “hello.”

All this green (and pink, orange, yellow, purple, and so on …) was so refreshing to see. It was a pleasant respite from all the concrete and steel that surrounds me on a daily basis. It was also a lovely reminder that someday, I want to have a house again, with a backyard, and my own garden.

japanese apricots



The city speaks, if you listen

Stopping to snap a photo while heading down a busy NYC sidewalk is a very touristy thing to do. I live here, but I do it too, when what I’ve seen seems important to capture, as this window decal did. Its message — to commit; to eschew indecision — is a good reminder.

Tourists in New York City are pretty obvious. One way they often stand out is that they stop in the middle of the sidewalk (blocking the rush of pedestrian traffic) to take pictures of things that those of us who live in New York City find commonplace.

I live here. I’m no tourist. But I still find myself frequently staring in wonder as I make my way through the city. And I, too, want to record those moments of wonder. What sets me aside from so many tourists is that I do my best to step out of the pedestrian traffic, making my photo-op as unobtrusive as possible.

I probably still look like a tourist. And I’m ok with that. The moment I stop approaching my surroundings with awe, and a desire to share that awe, is the moment that I’ve lost the childhood curiosity that I both nurtured and sharpened as a journalist. The same curiosity that prompts me to ask a patient careful questions to probe her story and uncover the root of her malady.

In this post I’ve included several city photos I took recently, several signs whose messages spoke to me. Whose messages I thought might speak to some of you, too.

The photo at the top right of this blog post is from a high-rise building I passed; I don’t remember quite where. The photos below were taken on different occasions in front of Pure Barre, a fitness studio on 2nd Avenue that I pass frequently (and whose signs I’ve written about before).

My window to the world

I didn’t get much natural light while I was on my medicine rotation, so I made a point to look out the picture windows near the unit where I worked. It’s a lovely view.

This morning at 9 a.m., my class has an orientation meeting to our four-month research block. When I exit the door of my apartment building around 8:45 or so, I hope to see something I’ve had very little of on my medicine clerkship: sunshine. (The forecast today calls for clouds, but that’s ok — there are other sunshine-y days ahead.) For the last several weeks while on medicine, when I’d leave my apartment in the morning, it was dark. When I left the hospital in the evening, it was dark again.

It’s disorienting. Without daylight, you lose track of time. It happens to everyone in the hospital. I remember seeing a patient in the ED late one morning. She asked me what time it was. I told her it was 11:30. She looked surprised, and told me she thought it was later than that. I quickly realized she thought it was 11:30 p.m., not 11:30 a.m. Granted, she was rather confused to begin with, but the lack of windows in the ED (and the lack of a clock) only made matters worse. I honestly told her that being in the hospital, I sometimes lost track of time too.

I was fortunate enough, though, to get regular glimpses of the outside world that grounded my circadian rhythm. To get from the elevators to the ward where I worked, I had to pass a series of gigantic picture windows. Look straight out, and you got a lovely view of the East River, and one of the bridges in the distance. Turn slightly to the right, and you got a lovely view of the New York City skyline. Every morning on my way in, and several times throughout the day, I would take a moment to look out those windows. To chronicle the various views — of sunrise, snow, and sparkling city lights — I started taking pictures through the windows with my phone. Here are my favorites, broken up into two groups, the skyline view and the East River view.

Click on any of the images to open a larger, slideshow view. Oh, and pardon the glare — you know, those harsh hospital lights.


Skyline view:


East River view:

Understanding the umbrella

I quickly snapped this picture while walking to the hospital this morning.

In Chicago, where I spent most of my life, “winter” means having to dig your car out from a mountain of snow and bundling up against sub-zero windchills. In New York, I’ve seen people wearing down jackets and gloves when the temperature plummets to *gasp* 50 degrees. When I see these people, I chuckle to myself.

“Wimps,” I whisper under my breath. “They think this is cold?”

But finally, today, we got a real winter day in New York City. It’s been snowing for hours now, with several inches predicted. And it’s coming down pretty hard, even by this Chicagoan’s lofty standards.

For perhaps the third time this winter (not counting the days I spent with my family in Chicago over Christmas), I donned my long, down coat. For the first time this year, I tugged on my heavy snow boots. (And was reminded just how heavy they are.)

As I trudged down the slick sidewalk toward the hospital, I wondered how those people who wore parkas in 50-degree weather were doing. I hoped they were surviving. I thought about how ridiculous all this thick, winter garb looks on everyone, but how no one cares (or laughs) because we’re all just trying to stay warm.

In New York, some people attempt to fight the snow with an umbrella. I took this picture to prove it.

And then I saw the umbrella.

Yes, the umbrella. I’d forgotten about the umbrella.

Different cultures handle adversity in different ways. New York City definitely qualifies as a separate culture. It’s practically a foreign country. And as I was reminded today, some New Yorkers handle the adversity of blowing snow by shielding themselves with umbrellas.

When confronted with this fact, I did exactly what I’d told myself we don’t do in winter: laugh at how people were coping with the weather. It just looks so ridiculous. This is not rain, people! It’s not falling straight down. It’s not even falling sideways. In this wicked wind, it’s swirling and blowing in every possible direction. The only way to truly protect yourself from being pelted is to hail a taxi. And lord knows how rush hour traffic in Manhattan is when it snows.

This is the thing about New York, though. Walking these streets, you see a little bit of everything. Everything from a woman wearing a turkey stuffed animal on her head to a guy strolling down the sidewalk in shiny-cotton-candy-pink spandex to commuters hiding under umbrellas in the falling snow. Sometimes you’ll stare, laugh, or shake your head. Sometimes another person stares, laughs, or shakes their head at you, because they think you’re the weird one. Somehow the city survives on this invisible undercurrent of understanding that we’re all a little weird, all a little different, and that’s ok. It’s actually pretty cool. Even if you carry an umbrella in the snow.

Seeing the NYC street art scene

Joy (left) and me posing in front of one of the Bushwick Collective murals earlier this fall.

When my youngest sister Joy came to visit me earlier this fall, she had an offbeat itinerary. I previously wrote a post about our exploration of the Jim Henson Exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image, which I highly recommend visiting. I also wanted to share some photos from another one of our excursions. Joy wanted to get in on the NYC public art scene so at her behest, we headed to the Bushwick Collective in Brooklyn. It’s an out-of-the way collection of vibrant street murals that run the gamut from political commentary to psychedelic-trippy. The art is all temporary, with pieces constantly being added or replaced. So the images I’m sharing here are a simply snapshot in time of the day we visited. It’s a quick cab/Uber or subway ride from Manhattan, and it’s definitely worth the trip.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to open up a slideshow with larger images.

A message of solidarity and encouragement in times of struggle

Medical school is hard. Life is hard. However you identify yourself — student, employee, patient, mom, dad, child, sister, brother, grandma, grandpa, the list goes on — we all have to scramble, strive, scuffle, and struggle sometimes. Sometimes, it feels like most of the time.

That’s how I’ve felt lately. I’m guessing some of you have felt that way recently, too.

I was out walking on 2nd Avenue the other day, running a quick errand, when I saw a sandwich board sign in front of a fitness studio called Pure Barre that stopped me in my tracks. In New York City, with so much weirdness and activity all around, which you just come to accept as normal, it takes a lot to stop me on the sidewalk. But it was like this sign was talking directly to me. So I paused, and allowed myself to fall into the category of “annoying person stopping on the sidewalk taking a picture with their phone.” This wasn’t a stupid selfie though. This was important self-talk aimed at self-soothing and self-preservation.

So I took a picture of the sign, and walked to look at the other side. Lo and behold, it had a personal message for me too. So I snapped a photo of it as well.

I share these pictures here for multiple reasons. So many of my posts are uplifting and positive. That’s not me faking anything. But I want my readers to know that I’m human, and I tussle with human emotions, trials, and tribulations. I also want to let other people know — other people who may be struggling themselves — that they’re not alone. And last but not least, I want to offer a public message of encouragement to all of us, myself included.

So whether you’re grappling with a difficult boss, a difficult patient, a difficult family member, a difficult illness, or something else, know that you’re not alone. And hard as it is, for you and for me both, we will get through it, like we always do.

It’s the muppets! (and more)

I never thought I’d get a hug from Big Bird. Here I get hugged by Big Bird AND my sister at the same time. So amazing.

My youngest sister, Joy, is in town for the weekend. It’s her first time in New York City, and her main tourism priority was a little off the beaten path. Her #1 activity choice in the city was seeing The Jim Henson Exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s something I’d wanted to see too, though not with quite so much fervor.

I’m so glad we went. The museum, which highlights and celebrates the evolution of cinema and television, was incredible. As was learning (and seeing!) all the muppets I’d grown up with. This was one of the most interactive museums I’ve been to, with stations that allow you to create your own frame-by-frame animations, add strange sound effects or music to well-known films like “Jurassic Park” and “The Terminator,” and dress up your own muppet.

To the latter, I added an additional educational layer. I’m on my neurology clerkship now. One of the issues neurologists frequently get called for is eye deviation. This can be due to a number of things, including failure of one or more cranial nerves to fire and signal the eye muscles to move. I created two different muppets, as you’ll see from the photos below. The one with the red hair has a cranial nerve VI palsy, because he’s trying to look right, and his right eye cannot move laterally (lateral gaze is mediated by cranial nerve VI, while medial gaze is mediated by cranial nerve III). In the picture where I’m smiling with my lovely platinum blond-haired muppet, she’s doing fine, looking down and in toward her nose. In the image where I’m frowning, she’s undergone some sort of trauma, and cranial nerve IV isn’t working, because her left eye can’t make this down and in movement, which is called “intorsion” (cranial nerve IV is the one most likely to be damaged in trauma because of its long course). I know, I’m a nerd.

But it’s not just the muppets. There’s so much more. Of course, you can’t have a museum dedicated to TV and movies without a section on sci-fi. I enjoyed seeing the paraphernalia from Star Trek (I grew up watching The Next Generation series) as well as Star Wars. Some of the Star Wars stuff was bizarre, including mugs featuring the mugs of Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, a teapot with Luke riding a tauntaun, and a scotch tape dispenser with C-3PO.

As a writer, I also couldn’t help but take a picture next to the sign emphasizing the essential contribution of screenwriters. I especially like the quotation it includes from “Sunset Boulevard.”

Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.

While that may not exactly be true, I do think the writing is often taken for granted because it takes place behind the scenes, rather than directly on the screen, like acting or special effects.

If you’re in the city and haven’t been to this museum, I highly recommend it. It’s a good time, a perfect mix of learning about the moving images that are such an integral part of our culture, of making and doing things, and of laughing. For me, it was especially wonderful to share this experience with my favorite youngest sister. Thanks, Joy.