Month: January 2017

Family Summons

Amy Cowan

Startled out of sleep, I reflexively reach for my beeping pager. For a split second, I lie poised between wakefulness and terror in the pitch-dark resident call room, not sure where I am or what happened. I resolve to sleep with the lights on from now on.

I dial the call-back number.

“Pod A,” a caffeinated voice chirps. It’s Candice, one of the nurses.

“Hi. Amy here, returning a page,” I murmur.

“Oh, hi, Dr. Cowan,” she says. “I just wanted to let you know that the family is all here. They’re ready for the meeting.” Her voice is sweet. At sixty-three, Candice is still practicing ICU nursing–at night, no less. She loves it.

“Candice, what are you talking about? What meeting?” I ask.

Untitled (A Medical Student’s First Patient)

I was terrified the first day of lab. Terrified of the slice of a scalpel through human skin. And, most of all, terrified of how I would react to the shock of making that first cut. 

I did make that first cut and many more afterward. I didn’t pass out, and eventually my heart stopped pounding when I picked up the scalpel. As time went on, we learned an impossible amount about the way humans are made, the way the pieces fit together. That was your gift to us, and I want to thank you.

Though I must admit, it felt almost paradoxical to learn so much about you and so little at the very same time.

Riñones al Jerez

 

“You do not need an MRI,” I told my father emphatically as he stood in my living room, explaining to me that his beloved doctor had ordered this for his low back pain. He was hoping for a quick fix before meeting his brother in Spain. “You need physical therapy.”

I dislike playing doctor to my family, not trusting myself to dissociate emotion from evidence, but this was just too much. Sure, his back hurt him sometimes, but there was nothing to suggest anything dangerous going on, nothing an intervention would fix. Nothing but the dreadful aches and pains of growing old.

Knowing When to Let Go

 
I will never forget being told that my mother’s treatment options were pretty much over. A COPD/atrial fibrillation sufferer, she had been intubated and spent time in the ICU, then rehab and then home for a few days. She was very vehement about not wanting to spend life on a ventilator. And she documented this in a living will.

A Call In The Night

 
I married him in-between tours of Vietnam as a Navy junior officer, and even though we divorced after eight years, we stayed in touch and saw each other over the years.
When he emailed two years ago to say he’d been diagnosed with esophogeal cancer, I was concerned. But after radiation and an operation he wrote that his first two scans were good, and the doctors were hopeful. He was always a strong man and had been healthy, so I relaxed my fear somewhat.
 
When I wrote him a few months later, his reply was strange. He just said, “A lot is going on here,” and didn’t sign the note. He still worked as a lawyer, so I thought he was doing well and busy again. But no followup note came.
 

It Changed My Life Forever

 
Today is the first “back to work” day of the new year. Twenty-six years ago today, I got my HIV positive diagnosis. I’d had my blood tested prior to a vacation in Palm Springs, and my first appointment of the year was with my physician. He didn’t hem or haw or mince words–told me straight out. I was stunned but stoic. In my heart, I had expected it. I had been a sexually active gay man in New York in the 1970s and 80s; more than a dozen close friends were dead from AIDS.
 

Haunting Diagnosis

The day began like every other summer day. My eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter ate their cereal, watched Sesame Street, and played—him with his Star Wars figures and her with her Barbies. After lunch, they gathered a few favorite books and toys to entertain them while they waited in the pediatrician’s office for their annual physicals.

Normalcy ended when the physician announced: “Your daughter has a severe curvature of the spine. She needs to see a doctor who specializes in scoliosis.”

The Fighter

This was the third time he coded. Dean had been in the ICU for over a week without any visitors, telephone calls, flowers or balloons. He came in after an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest which he survived and subsequently had another arrest halfway through his stay here. He sure was a fighter.

With special help from the ICU team, we found a contact number for his mother after doing some research on the internet. I was tasked to call her and inform her he was in the hospital.

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