Caring from a Distance
Boyoung Ahn is separated from her beloved grandmother by an ocean and a continent. But, the fourth-year medical student at Geisel School of Medicine writes in a personal essay, working with older patients makes the distance between New Hampshire and South Korea feel shorter.
The gentle breeze of the summer evening embraces my hometown of Suwon, Korea. Holding my hand, my grandma takes small, deliberate steps forward. Two months into my fourth year of medical school, I am back home for a short break before beginning the residency application process. We approach a group of older women sitting in the shade, and they warmly greet my grandma with a sense of familiarity. My grandma introduces me as her “sweet granddaughter.” After a brief pause, she adds, “American doctor.” When they nod in acknowledgment, a bright smile illuminated by pride spreads across my grandma’s face.
As we continue our walk, nostalgic scenes bring back childhood memories. When I was in first grade, my grandma used to pick me up after school since both of my parents were working at that time. Along this same path that led us home, my grandma held my hand while carrying my backpack herself. I recall gazing up at her as she told me that a heavy bag is not good for my growth.
Now, almost two decades later, time has transformed her once towering presence into a petite woman barely reaching my shoulder—her white hair and soft wrinkles revealing her 90 years of age.
In seventh grade, I left Korea to attend a yearlong language exchange program in the United States, an endeavor that extended into multiple years. Over what has now been 15 years in the States, I have been privileged to have numerous opportunities that nurtured both my academic and personal growth. It was during college that I first discovered my interest in geriatrics while volunteering for community members with dementia. My interest further grew in medical school as I continued to work with older patients and forged meaningful connections with them.
During my time in medical school, I also began to notice a growing distance between me and my grandma. Amidst the rigorous demands of studies and the COVID-19 pandemic, my visits to Korea became less frequent, averaging only once a year. Although I make efforts to call my grandma regularly, our phone conversations have been challenged by her hearing difficulties. As a result, our exchanges are often limited to a few reassurances. Unlike the extensive hours I spend with my older patients listening to and learning from their stories, I have felt increasingly disconnected from my grandma and her experiences.
Before each departure to the States, I always reassured my grandma that I would see her again soon. However, deep down grows an unsettling thought that there may not be a next time. Despite her relatively good health at 90 years old, I understand that nature will eventually take its course. I fear that if her passing were to occur suddenly, I may not be able to return home in time to say goodbye. Profound guilt overwhelms me as I imagine my potential absence during her final moments, unlike the way I can be present for my patients through the end of their lives.
After years of being away from home for schooling, I am finally on the verge of becoming the “doctor” she lovingly calls me, with one poignant caveat: I will not be her doctor.
Perhaps it is this very distance and longing for my grandma that drew me to geriatrics in the first place. Every older patient I work with provides me with a fleeting glimpse of my grandma, whether it is in the warmth in their eyes, their gentle laughter, or their wealth of wisdom as they share stories from the past. Each encounter humbly reminds me to care for them with the same empathy and compassion that I would offer my own grandma. I am grateful to play a small part in their journey, realizing that they, too, may be the beloved grandparent of someone living far away.
It brings me some comfort to know that my contributions to older adults, as a medical student and soon as a doctor, will always make my grandma proud.
As we near the end of our walk with our house in sight, my grandma asks softly, “Will you be coming home next summer?” I tell her that I may even be able to visit sooner, during the winter. A look of relief washes across my grandma’s face. I pull her closer to me as we take our next step together.