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Too smart

I’ll probably never see him again. You can almost be assured. The exchange was simple, all but 10 minutes. It was among the millions of transient exchanges I’ve had with perfect strangers.

He is one of those people—you know the kind—who could not be made old by any number of wrinkles, or any heartache. He is a little kid forced into an aging body, jovial and unspoiled by what lies beyond the rosy days of childhood. But it was his eyes—the sparkle dulled by pain—that gave him away.

“Don’t become too smart,” he said.

I volunteer for the Ronald McDonald Family Room in Duke Children’s Hospital. Most Sundays involve extricating myself from the cozy folds of a sleepy Sunday morning to come in for a three-hour shift. And until today, it was just that to me, a shift. Clock in and out, log the hours and skedaddle off to whatever else needs finishing. Three hours to start my week off right, to feel productive, to convince myself I am somehow useful. Somehow giving back. Whatever that means.

The entire concept of volunteering has always been confusing to me. It’s an activity that in my own experience has been full of waiting, of good intention untapped, of great promise and little return. I’ve made a habit of going through the motions and meting out the hours. I always feel too underqualified or inexperienced to help in the way I’d like.

But today, the Family Room showed me otherwise. It is a place where the families of the hospital’s most feeble children can come for some down time—to do the laundry, take a hot shower or sit and think before returning to the onslaught of cruelty and unfairness that awaits them just down the hall. “Where do I fit in?” I’ve wondered. “And what possibly can I—privileged, healthy me—do to console?”

“Don’t become too smart,” he said.

Most family members enter quietly with baggy eyes and a small hello. They are bone-tired and numb. Today after months, one finally lifted his head to admit that everything wasn’t okay and hadn’t been. And that I could help.

“Don’t become too smart,” he said.

It was today that I met the “he” you’ve been wondering about. He is a grandfather of nine. Couldn’t be a day past 60. “Hello,” he mouthed. He shook me from my reverie. “I’m Gracie,” I said.

“Thanks for volunteering here today, Gracie. Why do you volunteer?”

Yikes. A loaded question before noon on a Sunday. Ummmm.

I was scrambling, grasping for straws. “I want to be a doctor someday. A pediatrician, I think.” The good old generic answer to the rescue.

At that he pulled up a chair and told me. He told me about his 3-year old granddaughter who had spent more time in the hospital than in her own home. She had a heart transplant in April and was born with upside-down insides. His granddaughter, at 3, has no surviving friends with the same problem.

And then, with a tired twinkle in his eye, he leaned in, as if to reveal a secret. “Don’t let your heart be hardened. Don’t ever become too smart that you forget to be human.”

Just earlier this year his granddaughter was recovering from the transplant. Her parents pleaded that something was not right. No, no the doctors said. She’s in recovery, she will be fine. No tests were run, the parental intuition left unheeded. Protocol upheld. Within the hour, she coded, and this grandfather received a phone call that she had died.

Don’t ever become too smart.

“I’m telling you this not because I blame the doctors,” he said. “But because one day that will be you. You will be calling the shots. And I hope science doesn’t make you deaf.”

I’m not there yet, not even close. I have the MCAT and a gap year and dozens of exams until I’ll be really, truly med-school bound. And yet, already Duke has hardened me. Built up calluses where things once rubbed raw. Taught me to fail and to rise up. Once I was coddled, now I am tested. Pushed down, not downtrodden. Weary, not defeated. But sometimes very close. Pre-med is the ultimate gut check.

As for the heart check? Don’t ever become too smart.

Gracie Willert is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Friday.

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