Soul Stories: Standing With Giants
The room is stuffy, but the woman is shivering.
Her husband stands by her bedside. An interpreter that they've hired to stay with her day and night stands at the foot of the bed. And then there's me, the doctor (I'm an intern), waiting to deliver one of many sad speeches I must give today.
Smiling wanly, she struggles into a sitting position and shakes my hand.
Even with a diagnosis of metastatic stomach cancer, she has movie-star looks. She's only twenty-six--the same age as me. I can imagine her stepping out of a red-carpet premiere in Shanghai. Instead, having hired personal interpreters and taken a flight halfway across the world, here she is in this hospital bed, waiting expectantly for me to tell her what we can offer her.
A man a few feet ahead of me
is pulling a rolling carry-on,
a clear plastic "belongings" bag tied
to the top by a white drawstring.
I can't resist a glance in the bag,
like a stranger who wonders about lives
in the elevator or grocery line.
It holds some clothes, playing cards,
the ordinary things. And lying on its side
is a small helicopter, its unpainted
wooden slats as thin as split popsicle sticks,
a broken rotor bent awkwardly
The late Eighties was the worst of times in medical education--the era when doctors in training worked a virtually unlimited number of hours each week. This unceasing and inhumane workload led residents, understandably, to view patients purely as collections of physical ailments.
Back then, I was an attending physician at a community teaching hospital. One day, as usual, I was preparing to make morning rounds and, simultaneously, to do my best to teach my team of internal-medicine residents.
Fourteen patients awaited us, every one of them quite sick. As my team and I proceeded from one bedside to the next, struggling to cram the patient interviews into ever-dwindling snippets of time, I felt a familiar sense of growing pressure; it was a struggle to focus fully on each patient.
Despite this, our last patient's chart notes grabbed my complete attention.