Skip to main content

What Do I Love? – JAMA A Piece of My Mind, by Deborah Edberg, MD

Published on: Mar 29, 2022


In this narrative medicine essay, a family medicine physician offers a meditation on finding the elements of joy that often have been submerged while faced with all-encompassing challenges. 

It was halfway through my third year of medical school when I unexpectedly found myself with a span of several days with nothing to do. I called a friend to get together and she replied, “Sure, what would you like to do?” 

The question caught me off guard. What would I like to do? It had been so long since I had the opportunity to choose something to do. Even before the rigors of medical school, college had been grueling with papers, exams, research. I couldn’t remember the last time I truly had free time when I could choose how to spend it. It felt disorienting, existential almost. Who am I? What do I like to do? I should know this, right? I called my best friend from high school. 

“What do I like to do?” 

“What do you mean?” 

“In general, how do I like to spend my time? What do I love?” 

She hesitated, but tried to be helpful. “You love to read, you love walking the dog, you love to laugh…” 

During the past nearly 2 years of COVID-19, I have felt that same sense of disorientation. The relentless expectation of parenting young children who have spent much of this time attending school remotely and doctoring the most vulnerable patients through a pandemic has left very little time for joy. 

What do I like to do? 

What do I love? 

In truth, for me, a sense of unmooring had begun long before the pandemic. Following the death of my mother 13 years ago, I was offered a career opportunity to advance into a leadership position I had never considered. I paused in that moment and can remember having a distinct thought, ”What would be the point if my mother isn’t there to brag about it?” 

I had a real reckoning with my life up until that point. How many of my decisions had been based on what I really love vs what I had been expected to do? With that unspoken expectation gone, how could I choose what to do? 

What do I love? 

When my father died 2 years ago, I had already been consumed by a lengthy and toxic professional period that culminated in the loss of a job I adored. The pandemic was the impetus that released the final tethers and set me completely out to sea. 

What do I love? 

I started a new job about 6 months before the first coronavirus cases were recognized. By the time we were shutting down in March 2020, I quickly fell into a new routine of parenting, doctoring, sanitizing. The needs of my patients became more complex and our fraying political structure deteriorated. 

The vitriol, the violence, the days spent pushing masks, social distancing, home schooling, keeping safe became increasingly cumbersome and the days blended together each bringing a new flavor of stress and a new level of hopelessness. 

What do I love? 

As I look back now, I find myself struggling to reorient and am searching for those small moments that could anchor me back to who I know I am. Amid all the trauma, a few begin to emerge. 

Another holiday break stuck at home, I am curled up on the couch under a blanket with my daughter, each of us buried deep in a new book, the fire warming us from across the room. 

Donning a mask early each morning, I walk the dog to the local park where neighbors gather, social distanced while our pups sprint through our legs wrestling in the grass. 

My sister and I, raised by a forensic pathologist father who gifted us with a deep appreciation of gallows humor, in the midst of a plague, with death flowing all around us, we are doubled over in laughter; tears (of joy? of despair?) streaming down our faces sharing the darkest of jokes told only to each other: “Too soon?” we would gasp “Much too soon!” we would cry. 

And I would think: 

Ah yes—there it is. That’s what I love. 

Read the article here.  

Full link: