Essay of the Week: “A Family Grows in Multiple Ways”

By Ailish O’Brien

At first, I felt I was in a horror movie. Masked men and women wielded sharp objects covered in blood. The burning smell of bleach assaulted me. I felt queasy, almost forgetting I was in an operating room, about to welcome a newborn baby into the world. It seemed so brutal when Dr. Jolin forcefully cut open the woman’s abdomen. The expecting mother held her husband’s hand loosely as he whispered quietly to her. I grounded myself with the sound of the mother’s heartbeat as deeper incisions were made. Dr. Jolin began to search for the child. A family on the verge of real growth triggered thoughts of my own.

My Chlann–the gaelic word for extended family–is a central part of my life. Being the older sibling means that from a young age, I was in charge of keeping track of Finn, my little brother, and all seven of my younger cousins. From offering help with homework to solving problems related to window breakage, I have so often been the first confidant my younger family members look to for guidance. Being the oldest cousin and sibling comes with massive responsibility. Maybe that is partially why I gravitate to a field where caring for others is the norm.

My placement within the family was not the only thing that inspired my attraction to medicine. I also fell in love with the unit on genetics and anatomy in 9th grade biology class and became drawn to the idea of becoming a doctor. Two years later, I jumped at the opportunity for a summer internship in the Pediatrics Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. On my first days, I was scared and confused as I shadowed nurses on the floor behind the locked doors of the unit. A playspace greeted patients and their siblings with bright colors and popular cartoons to mute the harsh reality of the floor. Barren scalps atop soft, innocent faces created a small knot in my chest, tightening as each hour passed.  I met Steve, a chemotherapy patient who ran track against my high school and Mark, a survivor of gun violence in his neighborhood. Both were young and excited about their futures, but held back by their struggles at the time.

When I see patients face their illnesses with  powerful perseverance, I am reminded of the strength of my family’s newest member.  He assumed my role as the elder child of the family. Emmanuel was not a newborn baby. He joined us as a growing thirteen-year-old who had endured a trip from conflict-laden Liberia to America as a refugee when he was seven.

Who knew my own family was on the verge of growth when I was in fifth grade? The director of my soccer club reached out to families to find a temporary home for Emmanuel, whose mother had returned to Liberia for a funeral. Soon after, Finn and I helped bring Emmanuel’s large suitcase to his new room and awkwardly made conversation with the stranger who pretty much became my big brother. Within a few days, he was cracking jokes, feeding the dogs under the table, and hanging out in my room to talk about school. From basketball, to chess, to brownie making, Finn, E and I wouldn’t spend a day without doing something together. Months later, his mother returned and the family decided that Emmanuel should attend a school in our neighborhood. So he lived with us during the week until he left for college.   

“Who is the black kid staying at your house?” friends initially asked.

“Oh, that’s E. He’s my brother.” I responded.

Enter: joyful chaos in the operating room. I was snapped out of my trance when Dr. Jolin pulled out a screaming child. Hands were clapping. I was overcome with emotion. Hot tears fell down my face as I realized what I had just witnessed: the miraculous expansion of a family.


Ailish O’Brien, a graduate of the Boston Latin school, is a freshman at Bowdoin College.

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