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fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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September 2019


I never grew Virginia creeper,
this twining shiny vine rapidly
unfurling its five-leafed bouquet,
yet it crept into my garden, stealthily
wrapping its strong tendrils round
stems and bushes and trees
in lusty demanding embrace,
attaching onto the house foundation,
embedding into cement and wood.

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Envisioning My Life at Seventy

Today, I retire.
Retirement is often a pseudo-haven, incarcerating the unaccomplished, the unfinished and the unforeseen realities. The predicament of retirement escapes nobody, and this old, crippled woman that I now am thinks of her legacy. The journey had involved much work, struggle and, at times, pain, but I had stood by Aristotle and his revered words about endurance being the greatest part of courage.
Distinguished, from everything and everyone, is the legacy I am about to leave behind. I sit on the rocking chair, scanning the room, waiting for something to draw my attention, and there it is: a crevice in the woodwork stares right at me. Had it not been traversed by a beam of light, this crevice would otherwise be office furniture. This ray of light through the crevice I find analogous to the impact of a scholarship I was granted many, many years ago when I was a nobody and had nothing.

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Shock Treatment

I sat in the cold, sterile examination room, anxiously awaiting my new orthopedic doctor–the fourth in two months. I was losing hope of ever finding a doctor who would listen to me. The first three had suggested that my pain was all in my head
I want someone to take me seriously, I brooded. I don’t want to be brushed off as the stereotypical hysterical female. My pain is real, and I’m not crazy. I need someone to believe me.
Finally, there was a soft knock on the door.
“Good afternoon, I’m Dr. Lee.”
In front of me stood a man with an impeccably groomed goatee. He glanced at my elbows, which I have a habit of bending too far backwards while relaxing. Brow furrowed, he reached out to shake hands.

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She Left before the Snowmageddon

Her spirit left the week before, and her body lay inside her casket shrunken. She died on January 29, 2019 and her family would need to let her go. She had lived eight years with Alzheimer’s and, despite a valiant effort and family support, Sue Insuk Kwak could no longer be trapped inside her body.

A week and a half before, I went to Seattle to see my mother for the last time. I tried to coax her to eat and to move, but at sixty-five pounds she was declaring herself no longer part of the living world. She was, quite deliberately, choosing to die. 

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It Was Not Enough

When your heart stopped, I was surrounded by people who did not know you. People who would not recognize your tired eyes, your weakened smile, the sheepish facial expressions that always accompanied your soft-spoken words. I had already started a new rotation at another hospital and was no longer a part of your care team, though I checked in periodically to see how you were doing.

When I received the news, there was no space to process you. I was standing in a crowd of white coats, and I was utterly alone. These were not the white coats who had spent morning after morning with you, checking in to see if your pain had lessened, if you were feeling more upbeat. These were not the white coats who had pored over each lab, each scan, each part of your history in the hopes of unearthing a clue we had previously missed, of uncovering a piece of the puzzle that would explain what brought you to us a few weeks earlier.

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I could not read Don Quijote, nor you,
Yet three months pass there across a table.
“The recipe, please!” I ask, eyes widen.
Behind the kitchen stove, a soft response
In foreign tones, “Lo siento, querida.”
“But do not pity me,” says the smile. 
It was another beautiful day in Toledo, Spain, with the final petals on the chrysanthemums falling from the clinic balcony. I was in the community kitchen with Himo, the cleaning lady. We chatted while she brewed a fresh cup of sugared, Moroccan mint tea for our patients.  

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Shock of Recognition

Lying in a hospital bed while awaiting heart surgery, I looked at my teen daughter and my parents, then smugly pointed out the irregular slashes on the cardiac monitor.

“See these?” I said. “They’re called PVCs. My doctor is going to fix them. Make them all go away.”

The asymmetrical rhythm, a frequent and annoying pattern of multiple skipped heartbeats, had plagued me for the last three years, despite my swearing off caffeine and alcohol and trying different cardiac and thyroid medicines under my doctor’s supervision.

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The Final Showcase – When the Price Is Right

It was one of those mornings when the light penetrated a window with a fierceness that could drown even a hospital room in a 10-foot blanket of warmth. In room 5307, this brightness shed light on frailty. He felt warm, alone. Bony ends obviated their presence beneath crisp white linen.

I sat beside him, agonal respirations as last words. I shuffled between bedside and nursing station telemetry monitor, focused on the upper right screen. 70. 54. 45. 30. Lifeless waveforms. A pause and end in pulsation. His hand in mine with no flinch, no change, and yet so much had passed.

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Snake of Secrets

I did not know to ask for a bereavement day to mourn a baby I hadn’t told anyone existed. Since they did not know, how could I ask for comfort, acknowledgement of loss, special handling in the weeks following the miscarriage? Everyone at work felt mean and cruel and quick.

My husband hadn’t been particularly happy about the baby; we were just digging out from the first two, so I was pretending to be put out. How do you grieve what you said you didn’t want when every ounce of you was thrilled, and no one knew of your rock-skipping, wing-flapping happy?

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