One day several decades ago, after morning rounds, Dr. Prescott slipped into the ER where I was the cardiac nurse. She did something a doctor would never do: She placed her leather medical bag on a stretcher instead of on the desk. Her eyes locked onto mine.
“I’m having a heart attack,” she said calmly.
While sitting on the exam room table in my cardiologist’s office, I began thinking about the many years we’ve had these semiannual appointments. I’ve had not one but two emergency open-heart surgeries.
In a few months, it will be exactly nineteen years since my first surgery, I thought. That means I’ll be starting my twentieth bonus year of life!
During the early months of the COVID pandemic, the Utah medical school where I teach asked me to facilitate a small group of first-year students in Layers of Medicine—a course that covers what you might call the “messy” side of medicine, including end-of-life discussions.
Just after the course started, my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. All at once, I felt my personal and professional responsibilities intersect, unexpectedly and powerfully.
I don’t know what it’s like on the other side of the mask.
Not the cloth mask, which I now wear every day, as habitually as my socks. I mean the plastic bipap mask, which provides the highest level of ventilation COVID patients can receive, short of intubation.
“After eighty-five years of life, I still don’t know what death is,” said Lonnie, as I sat beside her bed in the nursing home. “I just know it scares the heck out of me.”
Despite decades as a hospice social worker, I don’t know what death is either; but I’ve spent much time with patients exploring the question together.
“What scares you?” I asked.
The reasons not to go to Mary’s wedding seemed overwhelming.
She was neither a family member nor even a close friend: She had, in fact, been my psychotherapy patient several years back. The very notion of attending her wedding raised the issue of professional boundaries: Wasn’t it inappropriate for me to see a patient outside of the office setting?