Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Everyone’s pain

David Nathaniel Yim
Baltimore, Maryland, United States


Two hands holding shared pain
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

During a grueling two-week backpacking trip, I made the conscious commitment to become a physician. I did not realize at the time, but the painfulness of my trek was only beginning.

I knew that I had to achieve excellent grades and top test scores. So, I spent years studying for the SAT and the MCAT. At each juncture, I felt an intense pressure that I could not imagine feeling worse. I was also very aware of what was at stake because failure to achieve the objective was not just about me. My sister, Rebecca, had a hemispherectomy a few days before her seventh birthday and will eventually be my dependent. While she is largely functional, she cannot live independently. Her future has always depended on mine. Thus, I put in longer and longer hours to earn top marks while also balancing research and extracurriculars. The pressure was both actual and imagined. If I did not perform well enough, I might be unable to adequately help Rebecca. However, my self-imposed bar came at a cost. While I lived, ate, and breathed the test du jour, I lost weight, because my reaction to stress is to eat and sleep as little as possible. With every exam, I worried as hard as I worked. I imagined failing despite a history of success. I also imagined Rebecca’s future if I underperformed. While the physical aspect of my labor hurt, it paled in comparison to the toll of my imagination.

As I have gone from youth to young man, one fundamental truth about people that I have learned is that everyone hurts. You do not need to scratch very far beneath someone’s veneer to uncover a wellspring of pain. No one’s parents were perfect. No one is ever fully appreciated or understood. Life is never completely smooth, easy, or fair. None of us are getting out of this alive.

Knowing that pain is a common bond for all people, I have used my own experience as a touchstone for connecting with others regardless of how different we might seem. As a future anesthesiologist, I know that my fundamental task will be managing pain. One aspect is physical. However, that is not all I should or must do. My father has had fourteen surgeries. Most have been minor. When my stepmother, a physician, has commented about how minor an operation will be, his standard reply has been that no surgery is minor when it is yours or your child’s. Surgery is traumatic and frightening. Someone is about to cut you open and you hope and pray that all goes well. You sign all manner of papers releasing sundry people and institutions from liability. Someone asks you if you have an advance directive. Now you are reminded of your own mortality. The emotional pressure of the moment progressively escalates. This is where I, a future anesthesiologist, step in. If I treat the patient as a set of numbers or a problem to be solved rather than as a person, I will only add to their pain before the first needle prick. However, if I exude empathy and treat the patient as an individual, my interaction can create a calm before the storm. That is, were I to act like the physical pain were my only concern, I would treat a body and not the person.

The intensity of my suffering caused by the pressure to succeed has taught me to treat each person’s pain with a holy reverence and respect. No surgery is minor and no one’s pain should ever be ignored or unacknowledged. We all hurt.



DAVID YIM is a 4th year medical student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who is pursuing a career in Anesthesiology. He is a member of the Gold Humanism Honor Society. While he has several scientific publications in topics ranging from organic chemistry to cardiothoracic surgery, this is his first humanities piece. David credits his understanding of the sacredness of the personhood of all people to his sister, Rebecca, who had a hemispherectomy when she was 6 and he was 5. David is one of Rebecca’s guardians.


Fall 2020  |  Sections  |  Education

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