“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I am a five-year-old boy in Japan, and I stand out in a crowd.

Strangers on the street approach me to pat my head. I am most self-conscious about this phenomenon when my sisters and I deliver baked goods to a nursing home for the needy. Shrinkingly, I walk into each room and present cupcakes to the elderly Japanese women and men. They respond with curiosity by stroking my blonde, almost white, hair.

My reluctance during this weekly ritual led to protests that my parents dismissed. My mother, a Colombian immigrant, and my father, an Air Force officer, taught my sisters and me to look beyond ourselves. They inspired us to work to improve the lives of others even, and perhaps especially, when to do so is daunting.

Twenty-five years later, I continue to care for the elderly, but now they are my patients and, all too often, their expressions reveal suffering and fear. My childhood apprehension has transformed into a commitment to treat their hopelessness with compassionate care, and I aspire to improve the health of vulnerable communities.

Looking back, I smile on the trepidation of my towheaded, five-year-old self. The lessons that I internalized then continue to define me and my strong sense of purpose as a physician. Without realizing it, I was learning to demand the best of myself in order to help others.

For this gift, I have a gratitude to my parents that cannot be adequately spoken, only lived.

— Brendan Sullivan