I lost my stethoscope a little over a week ago. It happened without my even noticing. I know I had it on Saturday morning, when I was post-call, but when I went back to work on Monday it was missing from the bag I carry to work, and missing when I searched my apartment when I got home that evening. I must have lost it somewhere in the hospital on my post-call morning. I’m actually pretty surprised this didn’t happen earlier. The post-call state of being is one that is bursting with the possibility to make careless mistakes. You see the evidence all the time: half-finished cold cups of cafeteria coffee can be found, abandoned by post-call housestaff, on desks in the resident workrooms or unassumingly sitting on the backs of wheeled computers; the post-call resident will make his or her exit after saying goodbye to everyone on the team, only to sheepishly return a few minutes later to grab the coat or scarf or bag left behind. All this is to say that it’s easy to misplace things when you’re post-call, so I wasn’t surprised when it happened. What did surprise me was the intensity of my emotional reaction to the loss.
I’ve written before about how much I hate losing things. It’s a little embarrassing, really, how worked up I get when I lose physical objects. After all, my religion teaches me not to become attached to objects, that they carry no intrinsic value, that they’re all part of the illusion of this physical world. Yet I can’t seem to help myself. I get upset when I lose a water bottle, or a pen, or a sock, and I have enough insight to know that my emotions are out of proportion to the actual significance of the loss. So I tried to apply some rational thinking when I lost my trusty stethoscope, and searched online for a new one to replace it. Time to upgrade, I told myself. Finally buy a pediatric-sized one, or maybe one in a different color. But all I wanted was to find one exactly like the one that got away–a purple Littmann Classic II, outfitted with gray earbuds and gray trim on the bell. I knew that it wouldn’t be hard to buy another stethoscope exactly like my old one, but, I kept telling myself, it wouldn’t be the same. So I abandoned the effort, and opted instead to use rinky-dink disposable ones that I could find in the clean utility room at work–the type we use when patients have contagious illnesses that we don’t want to transmit to other patients. It was a poor substitute, the sound quality dismal compared to the one I had lost, but I needed a placeholder before considering a more permanent replacement.
Over the next several days, I told everyone who would listen about losing my stethoscope. I frequently proclaimed how sad I was to my teammates. I texted my fiance and g-chatted my best friend from med school roughly 2-4 times a day about how much I missed it, capping off most of the digital messages with multiple sad-faces, tears welling in their eyes. I knew I was being a little melodramatic, but I really was that sad. Wearing my rinky-dink Fisher Price-esque black disposable replacement aruond my neck, I felt deflated by its lightweight frame. I missed the gravitas of my old stethoscope, the way it would slip down, chestpiece-side first, leaving the end with the earbuds to jut off my neck at a crazy angle, if I wasn’t careful. I cursed myself for not identifying my all-too-common stethoscope with my name, or a sticker, or a detachable toy the way other pediatricians do. I not-so-casually stared at every purple or purple-appearing stethoscope I saw my nursing colleagues walking around with, wondering if for some reason they had accidentally picked up mine.
Slowly, I began to dissect my emotions and try to figure out why I was feeling what I was feeling. I realized that my stethoscope was the one tool of my profession that I had continually used since the very beginning of my medical training. Unlike the short white coat of medical school, which was unceremoniously abandoned once I graduated to the long white coat of residency, my stethoscope had stuck with me for seven long years. It was a constant presence during my hardest cases, my moments of connection with families, the diamond-bright clarifying moments when I finally understood a medical concept through experiential learning. It was a witness to my growth as a physician. I still remember laying the end of it on my own chest and listening to my heartbeat for the first time, the way my heart began to race when my body recognized itself in a way it never had before. I remember all the times a patient borrowed my stethoscope because he or she wanted to listen too, and how I guided the chestpiece to the right spot on the patient’s chest, and saw little eyes widen in surprise at the sound that sprang forth.
In the past, when I’ve lost things, I’ve sometimes stumbled back upon those things, accidentally tucked away somewhere and forgotten. A small part of me is holding out hope that the same thing will happen with my stethoscope, though it seems unlikely the longer it’s lost. Still, in a vote of confidence of sorts, I haven’t purchased a new one yet. Instead, I’m using my fiance’s old one, which he generously mailed to me. It’s sleek and functional, completely black. I still miss my old purple friend though. Here’s to the inanimate objects that support us in ways they will never be able to know.