He was my first encounter with a comatose patient. How does one communicate with an unconscious body? With tubes and wires and braces. He was fragile. He'd suffered a diffuse nerve injury and faced an unknown prognosis, yet his family was pleading for a hint of recovery as we were preparing to transfer him to a rehabilitation facility thater that day. He lay motionless on the stretcher while I awaited the arrival of transport staff to wheel him away.
Lou arrived alone when she’d come for her blood pressure and itchy skin. Sharp, funny, she told me of her daughters, grown up and far away, and her life in the neighborhood as it changed around her. She had lived there for decades, long after her husband left, long after raising two on her own, long after the cottages around her were torn down for industrial sites. Neighbors were scarce and stray dogs plenty.
When her daughter arrived with her, I knew something had changed. Having driven sixty miles to bring her, Lou’s daughter was here to report on the increasing forgetfulness, the neglect of her garden. She was worried her mother was developing dementia and wanted her to move closer, where she could keep a better eye on her. Lou was having none of anyone else keeping an eye on her, though. We talked about memory and independence and safety and planning—at least as much as one can squeeze into a protracted twenty-minute visit. We all agreed to watch.
You are an angel, undeserving of such tortuous demise.
I bit my tongue to hold back these words I was thinking but couldn't say to our young, male patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The attending physician had just exclaimed, “Foot drop is often one of the first signs of ALS. Do you notice here the distal muscle atrophy, including the intrinsic muscles of the hand, namely the dorsal interosseus muscles and thenar eminence?”
I met Terry the day after he sat in the back of a pick-up, joyriding on a busy interstate. A big rig whooshed by, sucked Terry out of the truck bed and slammed him into the side of the semi-trailer before he fell back into the truck. One scalp laceration and a few facial scrapes presented evidence of the accident. The damage occurred inside Terry's head.
Just a shadow over two years ago, my parents’ lives shattered when old age carried deep illness into their home and broke everything into shards. Those shards will be with us forever. They will, I fear, be visited upon seven upon seven generations of sons and daughters and nurses and doctors and therapists and priests and aides and friends, seven generations to come.
The miracle is that we are still here, two years plus a shadow on from that nightmare time.
"I only have bad options for you.”
I had visited this place, this stifling humid ultrasound room, a thousand times in my fears. But now it was real, and I had a choice to make. All the grinning, stupid hope I had embraced, the idea that this was a walk of faith I could use to teach others, rose up as a dark maroon flush in my chest. Hubris. The ancient Greek kind.
Sitting in a village in Saudi Arabia, where I worked as a community health nurse, I cried and prayed.
Give, give, give--what is the point of having experience, knowledge, or talent if I don’t give it away? Of having stories if I don’t tell them to others?... It is in giving that I connect with others, with the world, and with the divine.
My office at the hospital is not unusual. Amid the clutter there are several special mementos and notes received from patients and families over the years. Each one holds a story, brought back to life when I touch it again.
A few years ago, the sister of a long-term patient stopped by with a framed picture. We talked about her brother and his long battle with his cancer.
He had spent his career working for the city repairing street lights and signs. While in the prime of his life, he had developed a tongue cancer. After an initially successful surgical removal followed by radiation therapy, he developed a recurrence. Over the following months, the cancer had grown and spread. Eventually, there were no more options. He found peace and prepared for the end of his life.
Although I do not believe in medical miracles, I rejoice in the reality that I have experienced two—when I became pregnant with (and ultimately gave birth to) first my son and then my daughter.
From the age of thirteen-and-a-half, when I began menstruating, until age eighteen, I endured a great deal of pain whenever I got my period. My parents took me to the gynecologist, but he did nothing but assure me that “this too shall pass” with time.
Unfortunately, he was wrong.