April Butler
April Butler

This year, the Gold Foundation’s annual essay prompted students with a Maya Angelou quote: “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”

For one UofL medical student, this quote struck a particularly personal chord. 

“‘Home is wherever I’m with you,’ a patient wrote on a marker board to his daughter. He lay in a hospital bed thin and frail, with the sound of his ventilator whirring in the background, a wash cloth hanging in his mouth to soak up saliva, a fentanyl patch tucked behind his ear. Out of his entire body, he could only use his right hand. In a few hours he would be taken off his ventilator and placed on a morphine pump. His daughter held his hand with tears in her eyes. This is ALS.”

These are the opening words of the winning submission by April Butler, which chronicles her father’s battle with ALS – the disease commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s – from the outside in.

“I had this unique parallel in school about learning anatomy and how the body is supposed to work, and at home I was witnessing the manifestations of what happened when the body didn’t follow the rules we learned,” said Butler, who learned of her father’s diagnosis before starting medical school. “In medical school – especially the first two years – it can sometimes be hard to see in the thick of all the exams and the stress why we’re doing this. I was lucky enough to always have my ‘why’ on the forefront of my mind.”

It’s easy to understand why this perspective on medicine would be shared by the Gold Foundation, whose mission statement includes the evolution of healthcare through both compassion and “scientific excellence.” The Hope Babette Tang Humanism Contest (named for Hope Babette Tang-Goodwin, MD, who devoted her career to treating HIV-infected babies) is overseen by a panel of experts that includes various healthcare professionals, writers/journalists and educators.

There were 300 submissions this year. By winning first place, Butler’s essay will be published in two esteemed medical journals: Academic Medicine, in the October, November, and December issues, and Journal of Professional Nursing, in the September/October, November/December and January/February issues.

“A physician once told me, ‘you will not be able to cure or save every patient in your career. However, you do have the opportunity to heal every patient,’” she writes in The Healing Yellow Raincoat. “I did not truly understand what this meant until my experience with my dad. […] I am thankful for some of his final ‘words’ that I will carry with me throughout my medical career and life: ‘Because of the challenges I face, I am less than half the man I used to be on the outside, but more than twice the man on the inside.’”

Now in her fourth year of medical school, Butler will take this experience with her as she applies for Internal Medicine and Pediatrics residencies this fall.