Medical School: The Never-Ending Fight or Flight
The minutes dragged. She worked at it--
sweat pooling in her frown, her lungs
bellowed in and out as if the air were oil.
Her expression never changed.
Beneath the light,
my mother's skin looked violet.
I squeezed her hand,
pressed her fingertips, stroked the branching veins,
but...nothing. And so, good nurse,
I held her wrist between my fingertips and counted
one, two, three. Then the last beat came
just as light travels from a star
Marc D. Wager
When I was in medical school, more than thirty years ago, I felt I received pretty good training on how to communicate clearly and effectively with patients and families. I even remember the name of the fictitious character we had to practice telling about his wife's demise: "Mr. Gottrocks, I'm afraid that your wife has taken a turn for the worse; I think you should come to the ICU right now." As a pediatrician, more recently, I've been trained to discuss vaccines in a nonjudgmental way with parents who, contrary to my wishes, decide not to vaccinate their children.
Despite all of this training, though, and despite many articles on the merits of doctors admitting their wrongdoing, nobody ever taught me how to say, "I'm sorry, I think I screwed up."
Ms. Connie was known, to her delight, as the Jackie Kennedy of Our Sanctuary nursing home. A tall, eighty-something woman who tucked splashy flowers into her voluminous curls, she'd strike up a conversation with anyone she encountered.
These chats were never a half-hearted "How are you?" tossed off before zipping away in her wheelchair. She'd ask an aide if her ailing daughter was feeling better, or check whether the receptionist's son had heard from his dream college--"I'm keeping my fingers crossed for him!"
Ms. Connie shared a suite with Ms. Alice, a woman who was in her nineties. Ms. Alice was more reserved, but equally good-natured. Morning and evening, you'd find her sitting in her room, absorbed in a book. Despite their contrasting personalities, the two were close friends.
We met when I was fourteen, two years after I'd started volunteering at Our Sanctuary.