Note: Identifying information has been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned.
There come few more humbling experiences in life than getting destroyed at a video game by an 8 year old. In my heyday, I knew my way around a PlayStation controller. But times have changed.
I was sitting in a room on 10 NW, the ward of Boston Children’s Hospital reserved for surgery and orthopedic patients.
It was my first night as a volunteer at the hospital.
There are many reasons one gets involved in community service. For many, school and work requirements, as well as retreats and other social events will often prescribe the rolling up of one’s sleeves and getting out there. Many people also enjoy the intrinsic reward and benefit of making a positive difference in the world around them.
But my reason was different.
In college I studied business and ran my own sports media company that I had founded. I was fairly successful, and I enjoyed applying the skills I learned in the classroom to doing integration deals and building audiences in the real world. As a result of this, during college I was able to buy my dream car. It was something I remember getting out paper and crayons and drawing when I was a little kid—imagining all of the colors it might come in. I remember seeing it and trying to wish it into existence. Of course, I wasn’t old enough to drive, and we certainly could not afford such a thing.
But it was beyond thrilling to me, as a young entrepreneur, to walk into a dealership at age 21 and finally realize that this fancy thing I had dreamed about since before I was old enough to spell “steering wheel,” let alone see over one, was actually something I earned, and could have.
When I got it home, I stood in the driveway and just looked at it. I got inside and played with the buttons and controls like I was 5.
I stood out there until the sun went down.
But as time went by, things changed. What at one point embodied the wonder of Christmas morning, in short order became something that constantly needed brakes and tires and a monthly ransom to Liberty Mutual.
It became another thing. It became stuff.
Moreover, I began to become disillusioned with the reality of the media business, and what lay beneath the surface—the algorithms that power social platforms, and the discordance of the news we see on them.
As time went by, I decided I wanted out, and that law school was for me. I wanted to work on more substantive matters and important issues than following trends and chasing clicks—and try to solve some of these problems.
Initially, I was interested in “Big Law,” like so many others, because of the prestige and the contrivance of professional attainment and “success” it has come to take up inside the American consciousness.
However, it seemed the more I moved towards it, the more things began to resemble what I was running away from.
Data, numbers, money, statistics, billable hours.
But I wasn’t going to be deterred. I met with many lawyers during this time who all gave me the same warnings about Big Law. I heard the same stories from attorneys young and old about the exacting, implacable foundry of litigiousness that would await me.
I didn’t listen, though. Not to myself or to them. I sort of just kept going through the process.
But I began to feel out of balance. I felt like something was missing. I felt so removed from the natural rhythm of what’s actually important in life, and what I actually want to be about, that I realized I needed a fresh challenge.
I needed a counterweight to balance everything out. I wanted an opportunity to do good for others, instead of something self-centered and importunate for myself. I wanted to add something to my routine that provided a new type of challenge, one that unlike reconnoitering the path to prestigious sounding firms, or organizing entertainment content for maximum clicks, provided a challenge that simply made me feel human.
I wanted to volunteer somewhere I felt would best put me in touch with the levity and spirit I felt when I was that kid daydreaming about cars and trucks and thinking about the future, and not the adult shaking his fist at gridlock traffic, thinking about teeing up a career in mergers and acquisitions.
I found out about the volunteer program at Boston Children’s Hospital and it looked like exactly what I was interested in. It required participants to commit to spending time at the hospital every week, interacting with patients, siblings, and families at the bedside, in the playroom, and in the waiting room, to try to make their experience less stressful and more positive.
It also seemed extremely challenging. I didn’t have a ton of experience with kids, and a lot of what goes on in a hospital is not comfortable. People are stressed out, tensions are high, and even those with the most gregarious social skills are sure to be tested in this environment.
But I recognized that this was an opportunity to take on a positive challenge that would force me to grow and become more empathetic and connected with something meaningful and good. It would help ground me and help give me a more well-rounded basis on which to be making the type of career decisions I was grappling with.
It turned out the program was quite selective. The application website only opened for a few days at different times of the year, and a letter of recommendation and other materials were required in addition to an interview.
Fortunately, I was asked to come in.
When I sat down for my interview, I could not help but notice that warmth and positivity radiated from my interviewer. Having spent the last several months being interviewed by law school admissions professionals, meeting with lawyers, and grinding it out daily in the media business, I was caught off guard by the alacrity and simple kindness that was being shown to me. I quickly calibrated to this new environment. I told an abridged version of what brought me in—explaining how I was interested in getting community service back into my routine after tiring of the vapid impingements of the corporate world, feeling called to do more—and that I felt this is one of the best places to do just that.
I could tell my interviewer had heard this all before, and that my path was one well-traveled. I could feel, in a palpable way, through their nods and expressions, that in the seat in which I sat, before me had come a long line of individuals feeling similarly called. Individuals seeking the same type of grounding, challenge, and goodness as I had. It was disarming in a way. In interviews, you are used to having to sell yourself, and be your best “you.” I had entered a different world. This shared human reality sells itself.
Luckily, I was welcomed aboard. After some intensive training over the next month, my first shift was scheduled for a Friday night in February of 2020.
I started thinking about the scenarios we had done training for, and how I would handle different things. I thought about all of the precaution signs on patients’ doors I needed to read, the personal protective equipment I needed to wear and under which conditions, what toys and resources were available, which alarms meant what, which buttons did what, what to answer to which questions, and where everything was. I honestly wasn’t sure how I was going to do, and had reservations that I might not be up to the task.
I met with the child life specialist for my assigned floor, 10 NW, who showed me around. She was so welcoming and I was so nervous that I’d screw up, that I was focused more on not looking the way I was feeling than memorizing the tour she was giving me. In a heavily engineered, symmetrical, and master planned hospital building, it was hard enough to find things, as it were.
Then she told me about the other volunteer, Michael, working in the same ward during the opposite shift from me.
He was an associate at a top V100 big law firm in Boston, a few years older than me. She told me about his story, a story and trajectory that was strikingly similar to my own, even having attended the same schools as me. After several years of transactional work, he was having feelings that sounded all too familiar. Feeling trapped by an insipid but lucrative grind, he was the victim of the “golden handcuffs”—pay and benefits so remunerative that the job was nearly impossible to tear oneself away from, but under conditions so caustic that it can tear one down.
He too came to 10 NW, seeking to connect again with the same meaning and purpose as had I.
His story sounded more like the kismets of a soothsayer, foretelling what awaited me if I continued on my path, than a bio.
Yet, I felt impelled by this “success” addiction to just keep driving forward anyway, towards a goal I felt was so important. I would learn that very night, in the most heart-rending of ways, what “important” truly means.
I was given a spreadsheet containing the information of all of the patients on the floor, which rooms they were in, and notes about each. Then I was turned loose.
With my list in tow, and donning my blue volunteer smock to which I had appended my hospital IDs, I mustered the humble temerity necessary for the task at hand, and ventured forth unto the breach.
I walked down the hallway and took a quick look at each door, and glanced at my list. I figured I’d start off easy. I was looking for a patient with no precautions, meaning a patient for whom I did not need to put on a mask or gown, and someone without noted behavioral concerns.
I just wanted to show myself that I could actually do this.
After a few passes, I settled on visiting with Noah.
Noah was 9 years old, and I would learn he was here after falling from a jungle gym at a playground. He needed a cast and to get checked out. I saw his mom was sitting with him, glued to her phone, while Noah was playing with the controls of his bed.
My first instinct was to wonder who lets their kid climb on an icy jungle gym in Boston in February. I immediately regretted the thought. No judging: I had to rewire my instincts to espouse the dispassionate and caring attitude that was necessary.
It made me uncomfortable. I was concerned that the kids might not like me, and their parents, tired after hours in this place, would be similarly inclined. I knocked and entered, and both immediately looked up. I stood up straight, smiled, introduced myself, and did my darndest to make a good impression. I asked if Noah, who I could tell had already thumbed through every app on his mom’s phone, as well as every button and object around him, needed something to do.
He immediately asked if we had Play-Doh.
“Absolutely! I’ll be right back, Noah!,” I proclaimed as I headed off to the playroom.
For some reason, I could swear I saw Play-Doh when I was in there 20 minutes earlier.
I looked through every drawer and cabinet in the place.
Nothing. I felt more disappointed than he was probably going to be when I had to break the bad news. I had promised Play-Doh. I needed to come up with Play-Doh.
But it was not to be. I felt like I already screwed up, and I hadn’t even been there an hour yet. I didn’t want to return empty handed. I figured I could bring a book that looked cool.
But a book? Getting a book when you asked for Play-Doh is like getting socks for your birthday when you asked for a fire truck.
The toys in the room had a variety of appropriate age ranges to choose from. A book might be a good idea.
But being far closer to Bob the Builder than Jean Piaget, I settled for blocks. Yes—blocks.
Noah, apparently already having forgotten about the Play-Doh, was excited, and immediately started building.
His mom thanked me, asked me a few questions, and I bid them well.
For the next few hours, my tasks were largely the same.
Then the child life specialist introduced me to somebody we’ll call LT.
LT was 8 years old, was missing one leg, and was ill.
But LT was also, as was described to me, and as I would soon learn, quite possibly one of the most energetic, funny, intelligent, and inquisitive individuals I’ve ever met.
He could name all 50 states and state capitals, had memorized the roster of the Boston Celtics, and was able to play video games on three different systems at the same time while FaceTiming his friends.
“You’ll love LT, he’s unbelievable,” I was told.
The child life specialist introduced me, I introduced myself, and took a seat next to LT’s bed.
LT took one glance towards me, quickly determined I was far less frenetic and interesting than the Spider-Man game on his PlayStation, and tuned me right out.
I sat there awkwardly. But I had to remember these are not adults. They’re kids. They do not have fully developed social skills, and they are here in one of the most trying of settings.
It was incumbent on me to make the connection and start a conversation, and to make the effort. It was incumbent on me to empathize with the situations of those around me, and realize that my social comfort and any awkwardness was immaterial.
This is why I was here. To grow, to learn, and to make a positive impact on other people. Once I realized this was a totally different environment from what I was used to, it made things easier.
I watched LT’s Spider-Man game, almost getting dizzy as he quickly flew from the roof of one skyscraper to the next, knocking out bad guys and rescuing people from villains. Then LT would pause the PlayStation that docked with his bed and would move his attention to playing Fortnite on his iPad. He also had a phone where he was FaceTiming friends with whom he was playing the video games alongside, in real time.
At 8 years old, LT had a setup that rivaled something NASA had put together.
I was fascinated with this. But I wasn’t doing much of anything useful. I noticed on the whiteboard across from his bed, the nurses had written the phone number of his dad.
Apparently, his dad worked irregular hours and visited infrequently, and his mom was not in the picture.
He was there by himself. In a dark hospital room, hooked up to a cold and discordant array of machines and monitors. He was 8 years old, had to have one leg amputated, and was alone with it all.
I couldn’t show it on the outside, but it was devastating to me on the inside.
How could this be? I thought. How does this happen?
LT kept plugging away at his screens and games as if I didn’t exist.
It made me so uncomfortable. I felt powerless to do anything. I wasn’t talented enough to devise a way to connect with him, or do something for him, or even ask if he needed anything.
I had heard from the nurses about how affable and precocious he was. But I wasn’t seeing it.
I figured I needed to come up with a question that concerned something he was interested in. I noticed he kept replaying a part of his Spider-Man game even though he had already advanced past it. I figured I’d ask why.
“Why do you like to keep playing that part of the game?” I asked.
Each microsecond that passed after I finished asking my question felt like an eternity. I was nervous he wouldn’t answer.
LT, while still playing and looking up at the screen, quickly rattled off his answer.
“It’s really cool to fly through the air as much as they let you during this mission and see the aerodynamics. Normally, you have to build up power first,” he said.
Aerodynamics? Where did he learn that? I wondered, impressed.
I could now see what people were talking about. There was this undeniable sense that this kid was extremely sharp. Though quiet, when he spoke, it removed all doubt.
When nurses came in to check his IV, he challenged them on what type of needle they were going to use, and what time they would be clocking off and who would be seeing him next.
I figured I’d ask him about a topic that I knew something about, the Boston Celtics.
“Who is your favorite Celtics player?” I asked.
LT sighed, and told me that Kemba Walker is “really good” but that the rest of the team “is bums” and that the coach “doesn’t really help.”
I felt inclined to call 98.5 The Sports Hub and ask if we could get LT on the horn. I was so amazed at how sharp he was, and how this contrasted with the somber reality of his situation.
It felt like an unspeakable tragedy—that somebody with so much promise was bound by such misfortune of circumstance.
I saw a second PlayStation controller on the table across from him, and asked if I could play too. I figured that was a good way to help keep him company.
For the first time, he actually looked at me, giving me the kind of look you give another kid on a playground when you are trying to decide if you want them on your football team or not.
“Yeah I guess,” LT said, gesturing towards the second controller.
I then proceeded to get absolutely demolished at the game. LT wasn’t just good at this thing—his hand movements and button pressing was prescient. He knew the game so well, he already knew he was going to need to hit certain buttons before the game had even prompted him.
Needless to say, I quickly gave back my controller.
I was hooked by LT. His story was so compelling—so much to be upset about, and yet so much promise. I wanted to see him get out of the hospital and use his talents. But in this weird way, I wanted to see him again on my next shift as well. The nurses I talked to felt the same way. He was so inspiring.
Looking out the window at the icy Boston night, I felt bad for him as well.
In the midst of my own battle to try to fully realize what I was capable of and wanted to do, LT gave me something to think about. I wondered what the other volunteer, Michael, the big law associate, had thought when he met LT earlier that day. I wondered if he had similar thoughts as I did, looking out at the Boston skyline and wondering how the world could allow such injustice, for kids like LT to be encumbered with these challenges, while Michael and I grappled with issues that now seemed to me to be superficial in comparison.
I looked out the window at the office buildings that by that late hour were only made visible by the emergency lights that lit stairwells and common areas. I thought about the firms housed in some of these buildings, being adorned in all the familiar trappings of success and what society leads one to believe defines it. I thought about where I sat, and how I wanted to work on things that made me feel closer to what I felt when spending time volunteering with LT, than how I felt obsessing over dollars and data and the bottom line in business. I thought about what it all meant, and where I fit in.
There must be another way—a way that didn’t revolve around jockeying for a position at a place with the most prestigious sequence of names in its title, or the absurd credentialism of having an office on the most high-rent-sounding street in a downtown area.
Something about the inviolable and compelling nature of LT and his situation, and Michael and I volunteering with him, was an illustration to me of this duality of the legal profession that lay under the surface—that there exists an immense need to work for justice, and an immense desire for wealth, and the absurd collage of a system that distorts itself to service both.
I understood why Michael took what little time he had away from his transactional practice and spent it here. It’s restorative in a way.
LT’s PlayStation controller suddenly ran out of batteries. The other controller apparently would only work as “Player 2.”
LT turned to me and asked if I could help him find batteries. I sprang into action, and began searching around the room where he had assured me batteries existed.
There were none to be found. For the first time, he seemed upset and somewhat afraid. The escape from reality provided by his game had stopped. The background music and sound effects of the game ceased, flashing a message on the screen to reconnect the controller to continue. In the absence of the ebullient sounds of soaring from skyscraper to skyscraper amidst action music, the sounds of his pulse monitor and alarms from other rooms filled this new and frightening and cacophonous soundscape.
I told him I would be right back, and took off in pursuit of batteries.
I looked everywhere. Every closet, cabinet, and drawer. I couldn’t find any.
I asked some of the other staff members, who were also unable to find any.
After hours of walking up and down the hard hospital slab and sitting with LT, my knees hurt, and having made the brilliant decision to wear dress shoes, my feet were getting ready to fall off.
I also realized I hadn’t eaten since lunch. But I was not going home until I found batteries for LT.
At one point, I cast my search so far and wide that I got lost. I walked around for 20 minutes just trying to figure out how to get back to where I was. I wanted to ask a nurse or staff member for directions, but I didn’t know which room I was looking for, since I didn’t know where the batteries were.
At one point I was ready to walk down to the CVS on the corner of Longwood and Brookline Ave. and buy them for him.
Eventually, after I explained my situation, someone was kind enough to let me borrow a working spare controller. It turns out the controllers were actually rechargeable and don’t even need batteries. Exhausted, I sat down for a break. I could feel my feet getting ready to burst out of my shoes.
After catching my breath, I headed back to LT. It took me another 10 minutes just to find my way.
His door was on the corner. I had something funny and exciting to say but realized it was late and I didn’t want to be making a lot of noise.
I turned and entered the room, holding up the controller, with its light flashing.
But LT, and his bed, were gone.
His bags and belongings were still there. One of the wires that was connected to his bed was dangling and moving slowly in a pendular way, indicative of having been disconnected recently, but not too recently. Devices were beeping and buzzing and I didn’t know what the sounds meant, but they didn’t sound like good sounds.
His yellow wristband was on the floor.
Something went wrong.
He had been hurriedly rushed away.
Looking at my watch, between getting lost and scouring the earth for batteries and then a controller, I realized I had been gone for quite some time.
I told him I’d be right back.
I was confused. I walked out of the room, and observed the expressions on the faces of those around me, and quickly realized this was not something I should ask about.
Something happened, and it wasn’t good.
A nurse sitting at the nurse’s station looked up at me with this plaintive expression I can only describe as “No…it’s not good, but unfortunately things like that happen here.”
I put down the controller, trying to convince myself LT was fine and was going to come back and play with it.
I walked away.
I had no destination.
I just needed to not be there. I could feel the tension and the distress in the air around me.
I walked down the corridor where there was a large window facing out into a frozen downtown Boston night.
I looked as the steam billowed from subway grates and the exhaust of passing cars. I felt like I completely failed.
I felt like I wasn’t fast enough. I felt selfish for sitting down and resting while I was supposed to be helping.
I felt like I didn’t do enough.
I felt like in my short time with LT, I spent too much of it being apprehensive and uncomfortable, and trying to find the perfect words.
Why was I not aware enough of my surroundings that it took me so long to get back? I was angry at myself. I also thought about the fact that if I had been faster, I would have come back and possibly been present when something happened that I potentially wouldn’t have wanted to be there for.
But that was selfish of me. He was there alone with nobody, I thought. Why did my brain let me think that? I couldn’t possibly imagine—I didn’t want to imagine—I can’t imagine, being alone when something happens. The whole point is to be there for others.
I feared he may have thought I abandoned him after taking so long and never coming back.
I was angry and conflicted. I was saddened.
I felt blood rush to my face. The tempered glass of the tenth floor window started to accumulate steam from my head being inches away from it. I cooled off, and turned around and headed back.
But it was time for me to clock out and go home.
I wanted to stay and do more. I didn’t want the night to end like that. As I walked out through the labyrinth of hallways, I had so much to think about and to process.
Disrupted from my attitudes about the world and what is important in life by what I had just seen and done and signed up for, I was shaken.
I knew then what I had actually known for some time, that that familiar and banal path was not the one for me.
I knew I was called to do more with my law degree, and my ambitions. It suddenly became so clear. What had I been chasing? Money? Stuff? It seemed so silly now. It was as if in some weird and depressing and unfortunate way, this was something I was supposed to see—and that I was supposed to learn this lesson.
Before that night, I was afraid of messing up, and shunning the security of a path well traveled for the unknown and the virtuous.
It was in that moment, stepping out into the frigid air of a cold Boston night, that I was confronted suddenly with both the height and depth of man’s freedom—the power to take risks, and do great things, or to fail terribly.
Looking back, now in my first year of law school, I would later come to realize that LT helped save me that night, as Clarence saved George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
LT, in our short time together, showed me the richness and resilience of the human spirit, and gave me something to strive for that is far more valuable than anything money can buy.
I have come to realize that LT showed me that in even the most somber of circumstances, what is possible in life, and the imperative of pursuing what you know to be right, since time is short, life is fragile, and the pleasure derived from a life dedicated to stuff, is fleeting.
I never did learn what happened to LT that night.
I wish I had spent less time worrying about doing everything perfectly, and finding the right words, and more time just being there with him. That is all that is asked.
Wherever LT is, for everything he gave me, I wish I could have given him more.
Tom Blakely is a first-year student and co-host of the new ‘Just Law’ podcast from BC Law, launching November 2020. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.