My Best Friend, The Surgeon

Last week, Missy got on stage to receive her golden scalpel. What should have been completed in five years of residency had stretched into six years and three months because of the pandemic. I wrote a 2000-word essay back in 2018 during her first few months in Philippine General Hospital, the biggest tertiary hospital in the country. In it, she was defeated, exhausted, and slumped on the floor of one of the hallways, berating herself for having misfiled some papers. I, on the other hand, was the helpless by-stander, giving lame advice and half-hearted cheer.

Fast forward to 2022 and there she was onstage beside her parents who were beaming with pride. John and I cheered as we watched from a screen because each graduate could only invite two guests to the venue. I could not be any happier for my best friend who had, against all odds, completed her training as a surgeon.

I’m thinking it is time for me to finish that piece because it felt incomplete and understandably so; it was just the first year of Missy’s residency and we were two years away from a global pandemic that would put all our problems at the time to shame. It’s good we are never given any clear insight into the future because if I had known the worst was still to come, I would have told her then and there to quit and just travel the world with me. Which is what makes her achievements all the more remarkable. Can you imagine working 48-hour shifts in a public hospital in the humidity of a tropical island – and in the middle of a pandemic?

Because I am not posting on social media, I have not shouted my pride from the proverbial rooftops. But I messaged Missy to express how ecstatic I was for her success, words again falling flat and sounding inadequate when weighed against the six plus years she dedicated to her chosen field. My guilt was made all the worse because I had blown my chance to celebrate with her in the most epic way.

A few months into the pandemic, Missy’s dad encouraged her to join a contest by Qatar Airways for front-liners. She cast her name in and amazingly won two round-trip tickets for any destination in the world. Given that it was difficult to travel due to the circumstances, she was only able to book late in 2021 for a trip to Europe for the following year. And guess who she decided to bring with her?

We were set to travel across four countries over the span of two weeks. Meeting over Zoom, we discussed our itinerary, giddy and giggling over our imagined exploits. My husband, amused by our nightly meetings, remarked that I was clocking in more hours planning for this trip than I did for our wedding (given that we only had 18 guests that day and scrimped on a lot of the usual expenses, the Eurotrip budget was also racking up to cost more). We did our research, booked our flights and reserved accommodations, then attended our appointment together for our visa requirements submission.

When I got my passport, my heart sank. I was denied a visa. And though I reapplied with additional documents, the consuls were adamant about my staying put in the country. I was devastated and inconsolable for the days after; my pride was hurt but what gutted me the most was that I had let my best friend down.

While I wallowed in self-pity and self-loathing, Missy flew to Europe and lived out our dream trip alone. (Well, not completely alone since her sister is currently based in Spain, but she did fly to all the countries on our itinerary by herself.) Envy, longing, and disappointment bubbled up inside of me, but I tried to temper it with the reasoning that maybe it wasn’t meant to be, maybe the universe needed me to accomplish something at home that I wouldn’t be able to do abroad.

Little did I know that Missy was going through her own feelings of dismay and guilt at having to push through with a trip originally intended for two as a solo traveler. Dismay, because she had to rebook the accommodations and rearrange the itinerary on the fly; guilt, because she was spending more than expected and she felt that it was reckless to break the bank when she was just about to graduate with no fellowship or job secured yet.

When I realized that my best friend was discomfited in the middle of a trip that was supposed to be a celebration of all that she has achieved in the last few years, I set aside my own negative feelings and told her what I knew to be the truth: You deserve this. After putting in the work, the time, the blood, sweat, and tears, she was given the opportunity to pause and enjoy some of the best things in life. And I know it’s normal to feel guilty when you’re used to the daily grind, convinced that every good thing must be earned up to the last second, to the last centavo. But we shouldn’t have to shy away from truly great life experiences, to sully beautiful moments with regrets and anxieties about the future.

I like to think that my best friend traveled more freely after that – not for my words per se but for the realization that she indeed deserved the break. Of course, I also said all that knowing with absolute certainty that she would get into the fellowship she wanted upon coming back to the Philippines, which would lead to three more years of studying. Missy has always exhibited a certain hard-headedness, a steadfastness in her medical aspirations that I have admired since high school. And what’s been made even clearer to me as I witnessed her last years in PGH was that she wasn’t just doing it out of her geeky love for science, but also out of duty for her country.

True enough, a few weeks after her return, she applied for and was accepted as a plastic surgery fellow in the hospital of her choice.

“It’s official!” she messaged me, sending a screenshot of the acceptance letter from the program director.

“Wooooooo, congrats!!! I had no doubt,” I messaged back.

What more can I say? Despite words sometimes feeling inadequate in the peaks and valleys of our life experiences, it still needs to be said: I am proud of my best friend. 

And just as a bonus, here is a very short piece directly inspired by Missy’s experiences as a front-liner during the pandemic. At the time, I was doing a series where I challenged myself to write whole scenes or stories based on one word. Here is what I wrote for the word “callous”:

Callous

When the man is declared dead, she gives a peremptory nod and walks away from the closed door and toward her next destination. Her footsteps echo in the spacious hallway as she passes masked people walking in the same brusque manner. How many deaths today? She thinks dispassionately, calculating the rate of increase of infected patients, the lack of beds, the number of doctors and nurses in their staff. How much longer can this go on? But she loses her train of thought as she enters the emergency room.

At the end of her shift, she removes the mask that has been pressing down on her face for the last eight hours and peels off the protective gear piece by piece. Her body has memorized the motions but she pays close attention to every detail, knowing one false move can cost a life. She sanitises thoroughly before leaving the hospital and heads back to a lonely motel room. White walls, a single bed, a table and chair. Life at its bare minimum.

As she sits in quarantine, applying salve on the peeling skin on her face, an unexpected delivery arrives. A friend has sent a gift redolent with the aroma of normal times – of warmth, comfort, and companionship. She reads the note, hurriedly opens the pizza box, and cries.

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