When I met Jasper, I was a third-year medical student doing a nine-month rural clerkship, and he was an eighty-year-old man in a coma.
Family members surrounded Jasper–a tall, broad-shouldered man–as he lay in the hospital bed. His wife, Esther, a petite, lively woman also in her eighties, stood by his head, grasping the bed rail. At the foot of the bed stood their son, a middle-aged man with a baseball cap on his head, his hands fisted in his pockets. Flanking the bed were his sisters (both nurses), one with curly hair and a baggy sweatshirt, the other slim and well-groomed. A warm summer breeze wafted through the room, bringing the scent of fresh-cut grass.
Jasper had been admitted two days earlier. In the days before that, Esther said, he had “drifted,” becoming quiet and very sleepy, and eating little. On admission, he’d been severely dehydrated and short of breath.
His two daughters had always hovered in attendance. Now one anxiously quizzed my supervising physician about her father’s sodium level. This led to a discussion of his care.
“I want everything possible done for him,” Esther said. Her children agreed.
In the days that followed, …