Being Mickey’s Doctor – Lyrics and Discussion

Being Mickey’s Doctor

12 years old, with wit and spark, hospital room adorned with cards
Cancer, the forbidden term, a word for weeks we hid from her

 She missed her friends, her brothers too; playing sports, going to school
Remission came, a few months passed; she left the ward, but then came back

 Rest in heaven’s arms, Mickey you’ve won
I hear you, I’m sorry for what we’ve done
I remember you
I remember you

Huddled alone, behind the glass; while rounding doctors slowly passed
I hate it when you talk that way; like you don’t see me, she complained

Her immune system breaking down; we built a wall of yellow gowns
She begged to leave intensive care; yet we coded her body there

Rest in heaven’s arms, Mickey you’ve won
I hear you, I’m sorry for what we’ve done
I remember you
I remember you
I remember you
I remember you

Your family’s church, in wig and dress; you look just like the girl I met

Being Mickey’s Doctor: A Musical Reflection on Dignity

Being Mickey’s Doctor is a story by Dr. Margaret Mohrmann of a 12-year-old patient with leukemia that she encountered during the first year of her pediatric residency (in the 1970s).  While the lyrics of the song are based on her story, the structure of the song attempts to draw attention to the moral moves made in her narrative.  It is not intended to be a general commentary on all of medicine, rather a reflection on one particular story and the ways that perfectly good things (such as infection control and professionalism) can create walls between caregivers and patients.  There are three key motifs that can be observed in the song.  The first is a move from humanity to dehumanization. The second is Mickey’s portrayal as an object for examination, rather than a person with inherent dignity.  The third is the importance of memory.

The move from humanity to dehumanization can be seen in the manner that Mickey is described between the first and second verses of the song.  In the first verse, she’s described with the distinctive characteristics of a typical 12-year-old girl, defined by her personal attributes, rather than her illness.  Her personality is described as having “wit and spark;” she is observed to have many friends sending her get-well cards; she’s noted to miss the normal activities of life that one might equate with flourishing.  However, in the second verse her illness has eclipsed the personal traits that made her unique.  She is described as a spectacle to be observed by passersby, protesting being left out of conversations that have everything to do with her.  As the verse progresses, her personal dignity dwindles as her failing immune system further separates her from others.  Now everyone who visits her must wear a gown, gloves and a mask.  While the equipment is intended to prevent her from acquiring pathogens, it also functions to make her untouchable (and in a sense “unlovable,” as evidenced by a poignant scene where Mickey pleads for a kiss).

In the final line of verse two, the dehumanization is complete.  Attempting to retain a shred of self-determination, she was finally permitted to leave the sterile environment of the pediatric intensive care unit to spend her remaining days on the pediatric ward in the room that she had made her own.  However, on the night that she moved to the ward, her heart stopped.  The on-call medical team resuscitated her and moved her back to the intensive care unit despite the fact that she did not want procedures that could only briefly prolong her life.  She became simply a body that needed to be rebooted.  The victory described in the chorus is thus tragically bittersweet.  She won because the resuscitation failed.   Though the medical providers tried to claim her body for the ICU, they were defeated.

A second feature emphasized by the song is Mickey’s dignity, lost and regained.  She is a person that deserves to be addressed directly.   However, the vast majority of the story is written as a conversation between Mohrmann and the reader, with Mickey as an object to be contemplated. Only in the last sentence, “I remember, Mickey” does Mohrmann change her point of view to speak not of Mickey, but to Mickey.   Mohrmann speaks that phrase while kneeling beside the open casket; Mickey is no longer the object of the conversation, but now a participant.   This move is imitated in the shift between the verses and choruses of the song.   The verses are written with Mickey as the nameless object of the writer’s reflections and the physicians’ investigations.  However in the chorus, Mickey is addressed directly; this is the only section of the song where Mickey’s name is used. Like Mohrmann in the final paragraph, the singer turns their gaze from the attentive listener and speaks directly to Mickey, hearing what Mickey is saying and apologizing for leaving her out of the conversation.   Accenting the change in focus, each change from verse to chorus brings a shift from a major to a minor key, with a return to the major key in the following verse.

The final feature of the song is not so much an indictment of the dehumanizing environment of the hospital but rather a simple reflection on memory, the place in the story where Mickey’s humanity is regained.   By the end of verse two, Mickey is merely a body pierced with tubes and machines.  However in the single line of verse three, Mickey is again the 12-year-old girl from the first line of the song, even though her body is lying in a casket.  Memory has the power to combat dehumanization.  For Mohrmann, the moment that she speaks to Mickey directly is the moment that she kneels “in memory of” Mickey.   Perhaps it is possible that memory can tear down the walls between patients and medical providers not only after death but also throughout illness.  Perhaps remembering the girl who wanted to be a part of the conversation might have meant shedding the masks as soon as it became clear that they would not change her outcome.  Perhaps it would have meant that she could have moved to the pediatric ward earlier or even her to her home where she might have died peacefully.  Perhaps the things that made her human were not simply the perpetual motion of fluids through her vessels but the things that Mohrmann remembers about her, things are still true.  She is still a daughter, a classmate, a sister and a friend.  The compelling challenge of the last line is to ask whether Mickey looks just like the girl who walked into Mohrmann’s hospital months earlier, or whether, lying peacefully in her family’s church, in a way that truly matters, she is still the girl that we met.

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