by Melissa Pereau, MD
Early in his third year of medical school, Rajiv expressed an interest in becoming a psychiatrist. To his core, he was quiet strength, quick, clever, brilliant. And what a sense of humor. His smile could often contain equal parts sardonic grin and luminous joy. More than anything, I truly believe that modesty was his first language. I watched him singlehandedly design our residency’s first website while simultaneously building and managing the current Psychiatry Interest Group from the ground up. In all things, he was humble. He never really mentioned previous accomplishments, so when I finally saw his CV for the first time my jaw dropped. I had no idea.
- Fed and cared for the elderly and dying in a Calcutta convalescent home
- Provided food and clothing to hundreds of hurricane survivors
- Physically installed roofs and dug trenches to bring clean water to the Navajo Tribe of Tuba City, AZ
- On Sabbath, provided transportation to church services for the disabled and the elderly
All it was missing was “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” I was stunned. I emailed him back a singular response: “Kid…..who ARE you?”
I would like to share with you an excerpt from his personal statement for his residency application. He titled it “The Aroma of Humanity.”
“It’s a strange and unique odor, but it’s an aroma that I’m quite familiar with. It’s the smell of frying plantains and sizzling steaks with bell peppers from roadside vendors in Baja, Mexico. Mixed in is the distinct bite of sweat-laced T-shirts after a day of hard work. This aroma is universal, common to all cultures and circumstances. I smelled it wafting toward me as I rebuilt roofs and gutted houses in neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina in Waveland, Mississippi, and I smelled it halfway across the world as I cleaned dirt-encrusted floors and shaved the faces of elderly men, no longer able to groom themselves, in Calcutta, India. It is a smell that can only be described as human—and much to the chagrin of my airplane seat neighbors on my flights back from these expeditions, the smell isn’t particularly pleasant. But encapsulated within this odor is a wealth of knowledge. Every time its distinct scent reaches my nose, a torrent of memories comes rushing back to me as I reflect on my experiences, interacting with the incredible variety of humans I encountered. As I enter the professional stage of my career, I strive to maintain the same level of integrity and service that has helped define my development as a person. I will always relish opportunities to step out of my comfort zone and enjoy a new timbre of the aroma of humanity.”
This man was a servant. He was selfless. Rajiv was usually the first one to take a last minute call shift nobody else wanted. He was the one on the other line, helping the intern figure out how to put orders in at 2am when he wasn’t even on call. He was the one taking extra time to teach his medical students despite hectic days. He was loved and respected by his patients. He helped change our residency’s culture to one that embraces vulnerability and connection. Over the past seven days I have witnessed something very powerful as our residents and faculty have bonded together to take care of each other. Rajiv would be proud.
This morning a physician I have never met sent me a quote written by a child specialist named LR Knost. It helped me.
“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. Because that’s just heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.”
I am struggling with loss of this incredible creature, unique in the universe. But I am certain, without doubt, that Rajiv is now in a place of peace, free from distress and pain. And for now, I will celebrate and love him until I see him again.