Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Partial eclipse of the heart

Perry Dinardo
Cleveland Heights, Ohio, United States


An eclipse photo
“Crescent Sun + Lens Flare” by Phil Bruxvoort is licensed under CC PDM 1.0.

In early August 2017, the nation was buzzing about an upcoming total solar eclipse. I had been immersed in news about the eclipse for weeks, and decided it would be absolutely necessary for me to watch from the “Zone of Totality.” Within this zone, a diagonal path across the United States from Colorado to South Carolina, observers would see the moon completely cover the sun for about two-and-a-half minutes. I knew this phenomenon would be more than just a few minutes of darkness in the middle of a bright summer day—it had the power to be absolutely transformative. Outside of this zone, viewers would see only a partial eclipse. This was the first chance to witness a total solar eclipse in the continental United States in my lifetime, and I was determined not to miss it.

Instead, when the day of the eclipse arrived, I was roughly six hundred miles away at medical school in Cleveland, and not particularly thrilled about it. I had come up with a plan to drive nearly ten hours from Ohio to South Carolina to stay with my brother at college—my best chance at making it into the Zone of Totality. But one thing held me back: I was supposed to be in clinic that afternoon, in Adolescent Medicine. I thought of simply emailing my preceptor to say I could not make it to clinic that day. I had never yet missed a single day of medical school in nearly three years; plus, I reasoned, the clinic would probably run more smoothly without me there to slow things down. But, too excited to keep my mouth shut, I made the mistake of mentioning this plan on the phone with my father, who values hard work, honesty, and honoring one’s commitments above all. “You can go,” he said, “but you can’t lie about where you’re going or why.” And since eclipse chasing is not an approved reason for an excused absence in my school’s student handbook, this meant I could not go.

That Monday was a beautiful, bright summer afternoon, and my classmates were excitedly chatting about going to rooftops with their eclipse glasses ready. A few had even somehow managed to escape to the Zone of Totality. I dropped my phone to the bottom of my backpack so I would not have to see the constant notifications, and resigned myself to missing the eclipse.

My preceptor announced that her next patient was nearly ready to be seen: a transgender teen with mental health concerns. I read through her chart, feeling a tinge of shame for being so upset about missing the solar eclipse when others were experiencing such a tumultuous time in their lives. While I was agonizing about whether to drive to South Carolina, this patient had been struggling to express her identity and to exist in the world in ways I took entirely for granted.

Momentarily forgetting the eclipse, I turned my focus to learning about this patient. I wanted her to know that we were there for her, and that the doctor’s office would be a comfortable and safe environment to ask for help. I worried about accidentally asking the wrong question or mistakenly using the wrong pronoun despite my best efforts and genuine care, making the patient feel that I was just one more person who did not understand.

As I read through the chart, another pediatrician stopped by with a homemade pinhole projector made from a cereal box. I peered through the pinhole, saw the tiny crescent shape at the bottom, and pretended to be excited, though it was a far cry from the transformative experience I was absolutely sure I would be having in South Carolina at that very moment.

“Are you going to see a patient? You should take this with you and show them too,” he suggested, so I took the box with me and headed down the hall.

Knocking on the exam room door, I introduced myself to the patient and her mother. But instead of launching into the usual questions, I asked, “Do you want to check out the solar eclipse?”

We set up the box on the windowsill and I showed the patient and her mother how to peer into the pinhole projector. We took turns looking at the tiny crescent, discussing the eclipse and swapping the astronomy facts we had learned as eclipse fever had swept the nation. By the time we looked up from the pinhole projector, my nervousness had dissipated. We chatted warmly, and I felt confident building a relationship with the patient and her mother, so that asking her to confide in me about her physical and mental wellbeing felt more like checking in with a friend. When I left the room, pinhole projector tucked under my arm, the family expressed their deep gratitude for sharing the eclipse with them, and I felt at peace.

My time with the patient was only a few minutes of our day. For those in the Zone of Totality, the experience of a total eclipse lasted less than 180 seconds. But, of course, the length of an experience has absolutely no correlation with its impact. There are moments that change our lives—moments that change how we feel about ourselves and others—in completely unexpected ways. There are some that feel really big, like learning you were accepted to medical school. But it may be in the tiny moments that you realize what you have to offer the world, what you truly value, and maybe even where you belong.

The experience of watching an eclipse, whether partial or total, is exciting and transformative because it allows us to pause in our daily lives, to appreciate the true wonder that exists around us, and to become a bit more mindful of our place in the world. Something so rare and so magnificent interrupts our daily routines to remind us to be curious, and gives us a new perspective in the face of something greater than any of us alone. It helps us to remember that we are all connected, both to the universe in all its vastness, and equally, to each other. Standing in the exam room that day, I realized that we do not need a total solar eclipse to remind us to cherish these moments of deepest connection to others. I may not have made it to South Carolina, but, I thought, I was in the perfect place for me.



PERRY DINARDO is a medical student at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. She plans to go into Pediatrics.



Spring 2020  |  Sections  |  Education

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