There's something about the end of the year. It's a time for reflection, whether we like it or not. We look back on the year, judging it as 'good' or 'bad', or perhaps defined by a big event. A birth, a death, a marriage or maybe a new job.
And then as the clock strikes midnight on the 31st of December, the year renews and we saddle up to do it all over again.
Around this time, I start reflecting on my work year, as a doctor. I always think about what I've learnt, what I've seen and what I've done. I think of the faces of people I've met and looked after. I think of their families.
I think of the young woman who has had more major surgeries than most people have in a lifetime. I remember how, when I was talking to her about her next operation for a life-threatening illness, she closed her eyes and sobbed. And I distinctly remember wishing I could say something more helpful than "we are going to take good care of you".
I remember the countless patients who drift to sleep so bravely under anaesthetic. They are about to, quite literally, place their life in our hands as they undergo heart surgery. Some are resigned, some are stoic and others are upbeat. I always imagine myself in their situation being significantly less brave.
I remember meeting the parents of babies who are born with dreadful heart conditions. Parents who hand their children over to us, some only a few hours or days old. I see the looks of love they have for their newborns, as that utter adoration stands up against the terrible fear they must feel.
I think of the relief in the voices or on the faces of the relatives of patients when we tell them that the operation was a success. I think of the joy on people's faces when we say they're well enough to go home a week after their operation. I always smile when they tell me how much they're looking forward to their own bed and real food. I hear the patients who say something so simple, like 'thank you' for their operation, or for their family member who can't. I remember the chocolates and cards left for the doctors and nurses as a small token of their gratitude. I always remember hurrying to get the good chocolates!
I see myself sitting in a room with the family of someone who has just lost a loved one.
Again, I am lost for words in the face of their grief, their questions. I sit in the room and wonder how much the human spirit can bear. I wonder how I have recovered from seeing loss again and again. And I spend several days wondering what we could have done differently, if anything. I know that the person and their family will pop into my consciousness for many, many years to come.
I think of the children and families I met on an outreach trip. I remember the mother of a young child giving me a huge hug and crying on my shoulder, thanking us all for fixing her little one's heart. The warmth was everywhere and it was one of the times I was so grateful for being able to do what I do.
I recall the time I was rounding, seeing patients who had undergone heart surgery. Just as I was about to leave the room, a patient asked me about myself. I remember pulling up a chair next to his bed and just chatting about my hometown and family. And I definitely recall that I did not at all regret spending that time just talking to someone who had entrusted me with everything.
I remember the worry that comes with being tasked with something so great, like holding someone's heart in your hands. I sometimes wonder what it is in people like me and the people I work with that allows us to not only shoulder that responsibility, but to push on and get the job done.
Reflection is incredible. It can be instructive or it can be torture. It can create a deep sense of nostalgia or a deep sense of regret. I hope that every year, I learn something else and grow and improve. I hope that I still get to be in this extraordinarily position of trust and privilege, to be with people at their best times and their worst times. It's not always fun and it's not always happy endings. It's quite often time away from my own family and friends, from my own bed and my own life. But these lovely or powerful memories shape the next year and many years after that. They make me thankful for what I have, wiser, better and stronger.
And always ready to do it all over again.