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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 2020

Life Gives Us Choices (Sometimes)

I recently heard that a former coworker had passed away. The news took me by surprise, as I had not known that she was ill. I was told she had cancer and had made the choice to let it run its course without treatment. Earlier in my career, I probably would have questioned this decision. Why refuse treatment, when it’s available? Why not do everything possible to “beat” the cancer?

I do not know the details of her illness, or at what stage the cancer was diagnosed, but I realize that she made an informed choice and that it was her prerogative to do so.

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What It’s Like to Disappear

One morning seven years ago, I disappeared.

I started the day by swimming laps in the pool at the Northwestern University sports and recreation center in Evanston, IL, as I’ve done for at least fifteen years.

I have long suffered chronic muscle spasms and pain in my neck, hands and feet, and my daily swims, pain medications and mindfulness meditation make up part of a very helpful therapeutic regimen.

At around 9:00 am, having finished my laps, I felt some very mild tightness in my chest.

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Tornado, Initial Encounter

Thursday October 31, 2019, 11:00 pm: A forty-five-year-old woman named Maria drove her Subaru Forester along a Pennsylvania highway called the Blue Route, about fifteen miles west of Philadelphia. It was raining heavily. She drove more slowly than she ordinarily would, partly due to poor visibility but also because the wind seemed unusually strong. Her hands firmly gripped the vinyl steering wheel at 10:00 and 2:00, so as not to allow the vehicle to be blown about the road.

Maria was just about to switch the car radio to a news station, hoping to hear a weather report, when she saw the funnel cloud headed directly toward her.

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Detroit, January 1997

In a haze of sleeplessness, I open the door to the general-surgery call room (aka “the Garage”) just after midnight. I’m one of two third-year medical students on this call team, and if I arrive first, I might be able to avoid the bunks with the most creased sheets and the pillows with head indentations still on them. The entire general-surgery team sleeps in this one room, with its messy bunks for eight and its odor of stale bodies. That is, we sleep during free moments, in rare fits, interrupted by pagers beeping and the door opening with a flash of light and closing with a loud click.

Climbing to an upper bunk, I get beeped: Code 1.

“Fuck, another gunshot victim,” I mutter.

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Miracle Worker

“There’s a transplant happening today,” said Sophie Lee, a resident, glancing at her pager.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was a second-year medical student doing a clerkship on the hepatobiliary surgery service (specializing in the liver and bile ducts).

I felt a pang of disappointment: Now I couldn’t go home until after dinner. But there was no use complaining. I followed Sophie to see the transplant recipient, Mr. Franklin.

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Although the hospital where I attended nursing school in the ’60s was large—about 500 beds—the hospital where I got my first job was twice its size. I was intimidated and knew only how to get from the front door to the nursery, where I worked, and from there to the cafeteria.

One evening in my first year there, the charge nurse said, “I got a call from the Staffing Office. They need you to work on Five Center tonight.”

“What’s Five Center?”

“Medical patients.”

“Oh, geez, I don’t know how to care for medical patients,” I responded.

Floating Read More »

Hope or Despair, That Is the Question

According to the Bible, Eve bequeathed us freedom of choice once she opted to eat the apple from the forbidden tree. The consequences of her act were severe—exile from the idyllic garden. Robert Frost, one of my favorite poets, reinforces this connection between choices and consequences in his poem “The Road Not Taken.”

Since self-isolating in mid-March, I have thought a great deal about Eve, Frost, and the idea of choosing. While COVID-19 has stripped me of my normal life—teaching, ushering, socializing—it has forced me to make choices about the “new normal” that defines me.

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