I trained in pediatrics with James Oleske, MD in 2007, my final year of residency. He was amongst the first in the world to report on the infectious nature of the disease he observed taking the lives of infants born to sick mothers in New Jersey.
The time I spent with Dr Oleske changed my life forever. He presented in his white coat and his white hair to the ward with a smile and a bunny rabbit in his pocket. He radiated sincerity and care. I was told of his contribution to science & medicine, which had me in awe of the man I had not yet encountered. But I instantly forgot to be in awe of him, instead all I was aware of was that I loved his way of being instantly.
As a family medicine resident we spent time on various services in various locations. This month long rotation was at Newark University Hospital. It was one of several pediatric rotations we did in outpatient, emergency, and inpatient training for the medical care of children. The goal was to learn from each rotation the skills one could translate to the breadth of knowledge a family doctor would need in the real world.
So here was this man with his bunny rabbit, his smile, and more knowledge about pediatric infectious diseases and especially AIDS than virtually any person on the planet. Unassuming, generous, and kind. I loved this time in my training. It was sad and brutal to see sick children, some of whom did not respond to the antivirals they were given. Some of whom were doomed. My path took me to sports medicine, because I did not have the thick skin needed for the life and death experienced in the wards of the hospital. Dr. Oleske recognized that my heart was breaking and yet challenged me to connect with his most difficult patients. One of these a young girl that spent too much of her teenage life in a hospital bed.
One day this young lady made me a key chain. It was a joyful moment for me. Her gift told me I broke through and she knew I cared. Later that day I asked Dr. Oleske if she would make it. He said he didn’t know. It broke my heart. And then he told me a story.
He said that when he was working in the early 1980’s there was a growing number of sick babies in his ICU. He tried against hope to save them, but many, almost all, died. His spirit breaking, one night a patient’s grandmother approached him to ask if he was ok. He said that he was. But she continued telling him that she saw him, and that she knew he was hurting. She proceeded to give him a pin of a starfish. One he still wore on his lapel everyday. The starfish story she told him is well known and basically speaks of a young boy throwing starfish into the ocean after a storm frantically. An old man sees this and asks the boy what he thinks he is doing.
“Trying to save them,” the boy says.
“But you can’t save them all, what difference does it make?” says the old man.
“To this one it makes all the difference in the world!” says the little boy.
At that Dr. Oleske gave me two gifts. A starfish pin, and a bunny rabbit. He said that no matter what I did in my career I should remember that no act of kindness is too small. He also told me that sometimes the only thing we can offer someone is a smile and hope. The bunny rabbit in his pocket always found a home in one of his patient’s arms, every single shift.
I loved that time with Dr. Oleske. I still love him for that gift.
The crisis we are facing now comes with fear and the realization that we can’t save everyone. But we will fight. And we will try.
Be safe. Be well.
God bless us all!
Peace and love.