As usual, I found myself rushing through the labyrinth of hallways at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital, in search of our next tutorial. Every day, as fourth-year medical students, we are expected to present cases to awaiting consultants, in the many wards. This time I was lost. A kind nurse directed me to the place where I was meant to be…the pediatric oncology unit.
When the walls of his failed heart collapse, he suffers a damaging heart attack. He lacks any blood flow, so the EMTs declare him dead. Shocked, he fluctuates between slightly dead and more dead. The ambulance volunteers bring him to Northern Westchester's cath lab.
Unafraid, he sees The Light. He meets Moses carrying tablets down Mt. Sinai, greeting newcomers going up. Relatives weigh his mitzvahs: pro bono work with clients, sick friends, nursing home visits. The judge calls his wife to the witness stand. She says, "He should live." They await the verdict.
The summer before I began college, my grandfather’s health rapidly declined due to heart failure. He was soon admitted to a VA nursing home. Though we made plans for him to leave, I think we all knew the fantasy involved in those conversations.
I give her my sympathy: my self-control and dignity as I listen to her story of how her ear has been hurting for one day and she just can’t take the pain anymore.
I give him my patience: my knowledge and my experience as I put together the puzzle of his complex, nine-month hospital admission in a fifteen-minute acute visit.
I give her my compassion: as I politely but firmly tell her that I am not willing to prescribe chronic opiates for her fibromyalgia and depression.
I am fourteen. I am in a children’s hospital waiting room to see a plastic surgeon. I am here because of a surgical scar on my abdomen that has caused pain while doing sit-ups. This has not prevented my father and me from making a requisite number of jokes about the type of plastic surgery I am to receive.
Dad came from a family of smokers consumed by emphysema, and now it was his turn. Barely out of my teens, even I understood there was no hope of improvement. Only death would bring relief from suffering.
Our family took turns keeping vigil at Dad’s hospital bedside, always in pairs for moral support. During each of my stays, I offered a silent prayer: Please don’t let me be here when it happens and, especially, don’t let me be alone. I was scared to death. Mostly, I was scared of death.
By the time the blood vessel burst in the back of my dad’s brain, my nine siblings and I had multiplied to a mob of in-laws and twenty-three grandkids. We clogged the waiting room as we paced, switching from seat to seat, talking to one another and making sure our mom was okay.
Ma was a feisty woman who juggled many tasks and got everything done to perfection. She boasted that her kitchen and bathroom floors were “clean enough to eat off of” and that no one could make a brisket as tender as hers. In addition to cleaning, cooking and doing other household jobs, Ma worked full-time at a local children’s store. Nothing ever slowed her down.
The old woman bends forward, rubbing life into her putrid socks to ease the black pain emanating from her gangrenous toes. All the while, she coughs, calling it “the other person inside of me.”
There are times in life when holding on is a real necessity. For instance, when winter arrives in the Midwest.
Or when your children reach the teenage years.
Or when the government shuts down, and you happen to be a federal employee.