Holding out for a hero

When I was in sixth grade, the teacher gave us a writing assignment. “Write about one of your heroes,” she said. As my classmates immediately thought of firemen, their grandma or Jesus, I had to ponder my options. Joan of Arc? Harriet Tubman? Louis Braille? Superman? Athena? Woody Guthrie? Teresa of Ávila? The list was long. I had read about and wanted to emulate all of them. I wanted to save a child from an oncoming car. I wanted to resist a war. I wanted to invent a machine or cure a disease or overcome oppression. I wanted to be good and special and do amazing things just like they did. I was twelve and this seemed possible.    

Many years later, the whole hero topic is complicated. I realize that even extraordinary humans are a blend of good and bad. They save the world by day but by night, life goes on: bills, bad relationships, wrong turns, mental illness, real stakes and deadly fires. I see with adult eyes that the lives of my idols were difficult and full of hard choices. This jaded perspective is exacerbated by the flag-waving, yellow-ribbon casting of all soldiers, regardless of their actual duty or performance, as national heroes. Why does putting on a uniform make you great? It all feels diluted. I try to convince myself that there are also daily moments of valor like letting another car merge or offering to split the last snickers bar. But the child I was, who hid imaginary Jews from imaginary Nazis in her imaginary annex, would scoff at this definition as well. Not being a jerk doesn’t make you a hero either.

This week my sister called and told me a hero story. She is a family practitioner who works at an urgent care clinic. She also works for Doctors without Borders and has expertise in tropic medicine and underserved populations. When she is abroad, she rides around in dugout canoes and sets protocol for cholera epidemics. When she is home, she gives people Tylenol and tells them that the virus will run its course in five to seven days.

Several weeks ago one of her colleagues saw a ten-year old boy with an ear ache. He had a ordinary ear infection and was prescribed an antibiotic. A few days ago he and his parents were back, now seeing my sister. A teacher had noticed redness on the boy’s face near the ear. My sister asked if he had completed his medication. “No,” the mom said, “he didn’t want to take it.” When my sister examined the ear, she realized that the infection had developed into a condition uncommon in countries with widespread immunization and antibiotic programs. She called an EENT doctor and suggested he see the boy that day. She was told to give him more amoxicillin and make an appointment. She called the ER and was grilled on what she had done or not done, what she knew and what she didn’t. Finally, my sister lost her formidable Sicilian temper and bullied an ER doctor into meeting the boy and his parents at the hospital as quickly as it took to drive there.

The next day my sister received an email. The boy did indeed have the rare infection, which had progressed into a brain abscess so severe, they had to perform emergency surgery. Had he not been treated immediately, the boy might have died within hours.

I cannot stop thinking about this story. It has all the elements that intrigued me as a kid. My sister risked her reputation and within her own context, fought ferociously for what she knew to be true. She did not give up. She advocated for someone unable to advocate for themselves. She saved a life. She was rather nonplussed about the whole thing afterwards. Her nurses told her later that most doctors would have inadvertently sent the boy home. Why didn’t she? My grown up cynicism recedes as I add an inspiring epilogue. Heroes simply do what needs to be done when no one else will do it. There, my teacher will love it.

Next year that same little boy will be in sixth grade. My guess is that if asked to write a paper on “heroes,” he will choose firemen, his grandma or Jesus. He won’t realize that this homework opportunity is possible because a feisty doctor would not take no for answer. He will just shrug at the instructions and get to work.  

4 responses to “Holding out for a hero”

  1. LP says:

    Pandora, this is a great story. Hooray for your sister and her perseverance! Thanks for sending us into the weekend with a note of inspiration.

  2. Dave says:

    Indeed a great story. Thanks.

  3. Josh K-sky says:

    This is so great a story that I feel a little bad wondering if you’re using “nonplussed” to mean “upset” or “unfazed.” But I do want to know, since it sheds a little light on the heroics.

  4. PB says:

    Josh K-sky. You have brought to light a discrepancy that I was unaware:


    I have always defined it as unimpressed or unfazed, little did I know I was invoking wrong or “modern” usage (depending on your point of view).

    Thank you, now I know. I meant unfazed. She actually keeps editing my increasingly enhanced narrative. This is the sister approved version. The original had her calling at least 12 other doctors.