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Basement floods, ski lifts, and Christmas cookies: Life lessons from winter break

Natalia at Hot SpringSMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

Going home for the holidays means trekking to a small town in northern Iceland for Christmas, and then to the suburb of Miami known as Little Cuba for the New Year. As with so many 21st-century families, my parents are happily divorced and remarried. I have every kind of sibling known to the English language – full, half, step, and ex-foster siblings total eight loved ones I pray for before bed.

Every December, I land in Iceland having slept little, eaten less, and inevitably forgotten my winter coat. But I land at home. This is a place where scathing water bubbles to the surface of the land so hot it is piped into houses at 194 degrees Fahrenheit. Here like nowhere else can you take an endlessly long, hot shower without feeling guilty.

In fact, the Christmas that we installed a hot tub in our backyard, my stepmom joked that we could fill it with hot water from the hose since the plumber hadn’t arrived. I was out cross-country skiing to my grandparents' for cookies and tea when my dad made good on her joke.

A while later, when I was back home and showering after my excursion, my sister Tatiana forced the lock on the bathroom door open. She pulled me out of the shower, threw a towel at me and barreled past with a bucket of dirty water. As she dumped the water into the shower, she shouted at me to get dressed. Dad had flooded the basement.

I walked out in my towel and joined the assembly line that my family had formed. My dad stood at the front, passing up buckets of water as he sloshed through the basement in his fishing boots. Petra, my stepsister, flashed jokes that had us laughing as we spent the afternoon clearing the basement.

This year’s Christmas adventure was learning to snowboard. Dad woke us up every morning as soon as the lights on the ski slopes turned on. Luckily, my sister Helga is still only seven, so she doesn’t last more than a few hours.

The second day, Petra and I almost crushed Helga when we all fell off the ski lift. We came home for lunch and my little brother, Birgir, regaled my dad and stepmom with stories of how we survived. After lunch I walked through the basement to put the helmets away and passed the buckets we’d used to clear the basement flood. I touched the jacket I’d worn when Dad and I biked through the highlands and the game of Trivial Pursuit that my stepbrother, Asgeir, always wins. I smiled thinking how this home is filled with memories of childhood and love.

And it dawned on me that I have been so busy with medical school, I forgot about my dreams outside of medicine. For I dream that I will become a gifted surgeon, able to help heal those in need. I dream that I will work in developing countries and leave my mark upon the world. And while I have those dreams, I also dream that some day my own basement will flood and my children will laugh as they run around in the mess. I dream that someday my children’s children will visit me on their own for tea and cookies.

Returning for winter quarter, I'm thankful my family continues to ground me amidst the whirlwind of Stanford medical school. I’m thankful they remind me every time I come home that the greatest accomplishment of my life will be to raise a family of my own whose laughter rings in the memories that fill our home.

Natalia Birgisson is a first-year medical student at Stanford. She is half Icelandic, half Venezuelan and grew up moving internationally before coming to Stanford for college. She is interested in neurosurgery, global health, and ethics. Natalia loves running and baking; when she's lucky the two activities even out.

Photo by Peter Espe

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