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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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November 2019

First Saturday Night at the Nursing Home

I stare at my chicken patty,
the limp lettuce, pale tomato
sliver, open the small
mayonnaise packet, even though
I don’t eat mayonnaise.
I pour my milk, set the carton
on the table, slide aside
the red Jell-O. If I don’t look
up, I won’t be where I am.
Father wears a blue dress shirt,
not his own, stares,
not speaking, not noticing
the shirt is buttoned wrong,
brown stain on the front.
His hair stands straight up
and wild, blown by some private
windstorm. A woman alone
at the next table, tied
to a wheelchair, howls
each breath, in and out,
low and loud, over and over.
I try to breathe outside of her breathing,
but I cannot. Not even the watery
Christmas carols pouring through
the dining room can drown
her out. I want to scream,
to shut this woman up. I want
to grab my father, spin
his wheelchair around,
take him back home, back
to last week, back to twenty years ago,
away from the chicken patty
that resists my knife.

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Yellow Froth

He routinely slept through the day, sedating himself into a stupor with alcohol, benzodiazepine, hypnotics, and narcotic pills — some obtained legally from doctors, some bought on the internet from India — so the fact that he slept long into the afternoon did not alarm me much at first. I checked on him throughout the day just to make sure he was still alive.

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Casseroles and Conversations

2017 was a heartbreaking year for our family.
To start things off, my wife’s parents–both of them!–were diagnosed with terminal illnesses. We spent the next few months immersed in the painful, complex process of transitioning them to home hospice care and beginning to face and grieve the prospect of their deaths.
In the midst of this, Hurricane Harvey began heading towards Houston, our hometown. My wife, Marsha, drove to her parents’ ranch, south of the city, intending to bring them back to our home, on higher ground. But the heavy rains arrived a day earlier than expected, trapping Marsha and her parents for three terrifying days and nights in their flooded house.

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My Black Bag

Retirement means downsizing. “If a thing doesn’t give you joy, throw it away,” says the current mantra, as if it were that simple.
In my study closet, behind my obsolete Kodachrome lecture slides (about as necessary these days as a harpsichord), sits my little black bag. Does it give me joy? It’s much more complicated than that.
The bag holds all the medical instruments I carried through my training as a doctor–internship, residency and fellowship: sphygmomanometer (no longer functional), stethoscope, ophthalmoscope, otoscope, reflex hammer. There’s also a moldy leatherette case containing the dissecting kit that I used in classes from college biology through gross anatomy. The instruments are still shiny and sharp, which is more than I can say for myself.

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Schrödinger’s Patient

In a box she waits,
Neither dead nor alive,
Until observed.
In three months,
The box opens.
Tested, probed, scanned,
She learns the cancer has recurred,
In which case she is dead.
Or it has not returned,
In which case she is–not alive.
Boxed in once more,
Neither dead nor alive,
She again awaits the allotted period
Until the box is opened,
A quantum superposition which only death
Can collapse into a state of certainty.

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Teeter Totter

I am the only adult child of an alcoholic nurse. Well, he was a nurse, until alcohol took everything. He stopped going to work because they kept sending him home due to alcohol withdrawals. He didn’t renew his nursing license, and that was how he ultimately lost his career. He also lost his house, his car, his relationships, and his health.

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If It Kills Me, It Kills Me

He was my doppelganger: where I could go if I chose drink over life. I was his advocate, supporter, commiserator. I supported him in his choice to drink himself to death, and it was one of the hardest and most meaningful journeys I have had with any of my clients. I will always be proud of the fact that I was able to bring together a team that supported his right to live life on his own terms.

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I Confess

I confess. I would drive drunk on nights I went clubbing. I’d dance until my knees hurt and drink until the brand of gin in my drinks didn’t matter. With my windows rolled down, I hoped fresh air conjured some semblance of sobriety, in case I encountered a cop. I’d bellow my favorite songs, head hanging out the window. Me. An R.N.
In December 1996, I walked into my urban ICU, before color-coded uniforms, wearing my home-made Santa Claus scrub top, and found myself assigned to T.J. Dalton, a 30-year old victim of a drunk driver. The driver was a recidivist. His small pick-up had hit the bumper of T.J.’s Expedition, touted as being the safest car on the road. T.J.’s car had flipped end over end, shoving T.J. back into the second row of seats.

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