July 17, 2017

the power of a story

The following is not FACTUALLY accurate. Details have been changed, things deleted, stuff made up, all to protect identity. But it is 100% absolutely true.

The phone rang in that lull of the morning when phone calls usually do not come in.  The only calls at 3 am never portend good tidings.  This one proved no different.  It was a nurse requesting to come evaluate a patient.  There was to be no miracle for this patient, no last minute stay from the disease that had carried out its death sentence.  The pronouncement of death is one of those duties I hold sacred.  I consider it a sacrament to my profession and to my identity.  It is the final chapter a doctor can add to the story that is a patient's life.  Indeed, the final word, except for the memories that live on within the loved ones.  Still, it is rough way to begin a day.  I bow my head in reverence as I place my stethoscope upon the chest and listen for silence, bearing witness to the story that has ended.

It is now the end of the day.  Despite the fact that I am no longer in the hospital, my mood is somber, colored by the death earlier in the day.  But the last patient of the day in clinic knows nothing of this.  It is only my second time to see the patient but I remember the first visit well.  I only need look at my previous note briefly to refresh my memory.  She had come in, like all patients at some level, with a measure of suffering.  She had been to several doctors before and still felt no improvement in her suffering.  So I started at the beginning of her story.  And I did what I always do when unsure how to proceed.  I listened.  The doctors before had not listened to her story.  Instead, they ran up an enormous bill with a shotgun approach.  Had they listened, her diagnosis became clear.  Textbook, in fact, which is rarely the case for most diseases.  I pulled out my pen and added to her story by making changes to her medications.  She now sat in front of me with a smile and a thank you.  The day began with death, the final word in a story.  The day ended with a new chapter, a new sentence for a patient that reclaimed her life.

July 7, 2017

at the end

The following is not FACTUALLY accurate. Details have been changed, things deleted, stuff made up, all to protect identity. But it is 100% absolutely true.

Suddenly you were gone
From all the lives
You left your mark upon
I will remember....
- N. Peart

There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion.  This is how you live life in two days.
- E. Hemingway

Instinctively, I turned to walk to her room.  But she was gone  Like most patients, she was only in my life but a brief time.  But in the span of a little over a week, a lifetime can be lived, or at least revisited.  It makes for an intensity in those few days that makes everyday life pale in comparison.  I had rounded on her every morning.  Medically.  And every afternoon I rounded on her.  To listen.  To say she had lived a hard life would trivialize it to a cliche.  It would also be an attempt to define one solely by what has happened to us.  As if our response was irrelevant.  Because she also lived a fascinating life.  Within her was a resilience I rarely encounter.  And also envied.  Now that she entered into this final phase, that determination to carry it through until the end became more fierce.  Death became not something to cheat or avoid.  Neither did it become something to accept and willingly embrace.  It became something to conquer.  It was as if all the slings and arrows of misfortune were culminating in one final challenge.  One final obstacle to overcome.  To prove to herself that she was indeed strong enough.

And I saw the effects of that determination ripple through her relationships of those who came to visit.  Her iron will, her pride, her self reliance.  Contrasted with those who wished to provide comfort, compassion, care.  In the face of her loved ones, I could see the hurt it caused those who would be left behind with her memories.

Indeed, it triggered my own memories of my brother.  He was not perfect.  He didn't always get the choices right.  Or, at least what I felt to be right.  But I also remember remarking on his stoic response to what life had handed him.  It allowed him to continue to fight.  And it also was an impediment in his care, especially at the end.  I imagined myself in his shoes, to the extent that one's imagination is capable of such feats.  And who is to say how any of us would handle such adversity?  Those that live in glass houses and all that.  Certainly I am not without my own regrets when faced with life and death choices.

It's not that I learned to not judge the patient's choices, though I did learn that.  It's not even a question of whether to criticize how someone copes with such choices.  Instead, it is recognizing how muddy the waters are.  That it is possible to accept and hold paradoxes true, even if for the briefest of times.  My patient was coping the best way she knew how with whatever tools that had served her in the past.  But neither does that negate the pain experienced by the loved ones at being brushed aside.  Perhaps, I wished to find fault in one party.  That would make things more palatable.  But there was none.  Everyone simply was playing the cards dealt to them.  It is a messy business, this life and loss.

July 2, 2017

final year

Courageous convictions will drag the dream into existence.

Adventures suck when you're having them.

- N. Peart

I now stand as a senior resident.  My final year of residency.  I briefly look in the rearview mirror to take it all in.  Where I started.  What I experienced.  What I have accomplished.  What I have failed.  And now standing so close to the finish line of this grand adventure that essentially started as a mid-life crisis......It truly does suck when you're in the middle of it.  And yet, and yet, it is a dream dragged kicking and screaming into existence.  Both dream and nightmare.  I am not sure I would ever want to do it again.  But I do not for a moment regret the choice I made.