This past week, I was painfully reminded about just how fragile life could be.
About half of my overall class and I were in the middle of our Health Systems & Policy (HSP) class early Monday afternoon. The other half of my overall class were in the Medicine and Patients in Society class (MAPS) at the same time. I had just come from a Kaplan lunch talk not too long before, where a representative was talking about how great the Kaplan Question Bank was in preparing students for Step 1. My thoughts were drifting back and forth between how I was going to use the Kaplan Question Bank to supplement my ongoing studies, how to make sure that I had the best fantasy football team in the class draft that I had just been invited to, and the financing & distribution of Medicaid in North Carolina, which is what we were currently being lectured to about. It was your typical, sunny Monday afternoon.
Then around 1:30 PM or so, the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs opened the door of the classroom as the professor was in mid-sentence and motioned for him to come over to her with her finger. Puzzled, he looked at her for a couple of seconds and exited the classroom with her. All of us in the class were quiet for a few seconds, and then indistinct chatter started to fill the room. My friend and I started joking around about what the professor must have been thinking as the Associate Dean, of all people, abruptly interrupted his class. After about a couple of minutes, the professor walked back in looking pretty shocked, along with the Associate Dean and about five other faculty members. I suddenly did not like the look of what was happening. I heard my friend behind me whispering “Oh no, this doesn’t look good. This looks like bad news. This is going to be bad.” The Associate Dean got to the podium as the other faculty stood in line facing us and started to break the devastating news that our classmate, and my friend, Tori McLean, had just passed away due to complications from the bone marrow transplant that was supposed to have saved her from her diagnosis of Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. As she said Tori’s name, my jaw dropped. I could hear gasps around the room. As the dean continued to speak, I began to hear my classmates sobbing across the room. A couple of my friends I was sitting at my table with began to sob as well. I was completely dumbfounded. My jaw just hung open for what felt like an eternity as I stared in disbelief at the dean. I don’t even remember most of what was said after hearing the initial news. Just before she finished speaking, she said we were free to take the afternoon off to collect our thoughts and to mourn. I then sat back in my chair and numbly stared at the ground. I had just entered one hell of a daze. I must have sat there like that for about five minutes or so as others around me packed up their belongings and left the room. I then somehow managed to get up, walk out of the classroom, and walk back to my apartment complex where I met up with a few friends in their apartment. I walked in the apartment, set my bag down on the floor, sunk in the couch, looked up at the ceiling and proceeded to stare blankly at it for almost an hour.
As I type this post almost a week later, I still find it hard to believe that she’s really passed on. Like, I’ll never see her on this Earth again. It’s an unreal feeling. I keep thinking about how her closest friends and her family must be taking the gravity of her loss. That thought alone saddens me. The fact that she won’t ever get the chance to become the incredible doctor that she had the potential to be, or to start her very own family, or to just continue with life in general as a 24-year old woman is very difficult to accept. She had been fighting so hard against this cancer that she has been diagnosed with since mid-March, right as we were about to take our first Neuroscience exam. It was so unfortunate, but we all figured, including her, that it was a terrible phase that she would get through before returning to her regular life. It’s terribly unfair that her life on Earth had to end this way, because she was such a great person…she went out of her way to make others feel better, even while she was fighting against the cancer wearing on her body. While I was checking in on her this past summer, she told me that she truly believed that I was not only wise beyond my years, but that she was confident that I would grow into an amazing doctor, especially now that she’s experienced the patient side of things. She said all this after stating how much it meant to her that I was reaching out to check on her when she could only imagine how busy I was. Lol, that was just how she was man, so humbling and appreciative of everything. I had to tell her that I was never too busy to check in on her and that I had been praying for her and her family every day. She also told me that she still had been reading my blog every week throughout her treatment, which really moved me. As a matter of fact, Tori had been a huge supporter of Black Man, M.D. since day one. She was always “liking” my blog posts on Facebook and had told me several times in the past how much she enjoyed reading it as well as how appreciative she was of the quotes I put up every week. When I spotted her at the school back in early August after school had started up again, I tore myself apart from the group I had been chatting with, shouted her name, and gave her such a big hug that I may have lowkey scared her now that I think back on it. My last interaction with her was when she wished me a Happy Birthday a few weeks ago and had hoped that my day was just as wonderful as I was. Man, I’m gonna miss her.
This past week has been a rough one, with losing Tori and simultaneously having to study for our Cardiology exam that we’re taking tomorrow. However, the school has been absolutely wonderful in responding to the tragedy. In a matter of less than five days, many emails were sent to our class from various faculty members, including from the Dean of the Medical Center himself, the medical class under us worked to console us by providing us snacks and a memory tree for Tori where we can write & hang our memories with Tori from the tree, a memory book for Tori’s family was purchased, and a memorial was planned to honor Tori’s life. This memorial service took place this past Friday in an auditorium at the former medical center next to the hospital. I’m happy to say that the auditorium was packed to the brim and that the service was phenomenal. Her whole family was present as well as many of the faculty, our classmates, and others that either knew her personally or knew of her. There were songs sung & played on the violin/cello/piano, prayers given, stories shared by her friends and family, tears dropped, and laughs shared between the people present. It’s incredible to realize that even after her time in this world had ended, she was able to bring so many people from all walks of life together in one place. I felt, and continue to feel, honored to have been friends with such an angel who has touched the lives of many.
There were many organizations on campus that Tori was a part of, but one thing she was absolutely passionate about was Project Teach, a program within the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) here at Wake where we help to tutor both middle and high-school students from the community around us on Tuesday nights. We had both been very involved in this program last year, but it was very obvious to me how important the program was to her. Her love for the kids shined so bright that she was made the Community Service Co-Chair alongside me so that she would have full control of how the program was run. Sadly, soon after obtaining that position, she received her diagnosis. She then reached out to me a couple of weeks after her diagnosis and asked for the “big favor” of temporarily assuming control over the program as she began to fight off the cancer threatening her life. Of course I obliged and began to do so alongside another friend who was also invested in the program who also happened to be the new Vice-President of SNMA. Her and Tori had been working to expand the program to high-school students in the community, for at that time only middle-school students were coming for tutoring. When this school year started, my friend and I continued to work on expanding the program and eventually got a nearby high school on board to participate. This past Tuesday was the very first day of Project Teach for the year and I’m happy to say that it was a phenomenal success! We had about 25-30 volunteers and just as many middle & high school students show up. And the number of students is expected to increase for this Tuesday as well! I really wish Tori was able to have seen how well the first day went and how much bigger the program is going to get this year. But I know she’s watching from high up above and smiling down proudly on all of us.
Life can be very rewarding and at times you may feel invincible. But life can also be just as fragile, for one moment you’re on top of the world and in the very next moment you can be on the ground suffering. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this unfortunate event and from medical school in general, it’s that nobody is invincible. Disease & Tragedy can strike any one of us at anytime, even if we mean well and do our best to stay healthy. However, as the late and great Maya Angelou once said, “people will never forget how you made them feel”. I’m sure that just about everyone who has been touched by Tori’s presence can comfortably say that they will never forget how she made them feel, and that although she’s physically gone, her spirit will continue to live on in them forever. Her spirit will surely continue to live on in me. We all only have one life to live, so let’s shape our lives the way we want to shape them. Believe it or not, we have the power to do so. And while we work on shaping it, let’s find a way to make a positive difference in someone else’s life. It can be as big as funding a full scholarship for somebody or as simple as genuinely telling someone that they are beautiful. Even something as small as giving someone a smile can do wonders for another person. You just never know.
Victoria “Tori” McLean
January 6, 1992 – September 12, 2016
May your phenomenal soul rest in eternal peace.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” – Oscar Wilde
– Black Man, M.D.