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All too often in my forty years of practicing medicine, I’ve seen patients die hard, lonely deaths—lying on a stretcher under the emergency department’s glaring lights, or all alone in an ICU bed.
In extreme situations, the patient is covered in medical equipment: a breathing tube in the mouth, defibrillator pads on the chest, monitor leads on the torso, IV lines dangling from the neck and arms. When family members finally enter the room, it’s
I vividly remember sitting in the living room of my grandmother’s house in Piedra Blanca, Dominican Republic. The room had been cleared of furniture. Before me, a flower-filled casket held the body of a young girl—my sister Nelsida, age seven. She had died from an anesthesia overdose prior to surgery.
I was five. I will never forget the sight of the cotton balls inside her nose and ears, the ice under the casket and the
It was a Thursday morning, my first day on the medical oncology service. I hurriedly gathered my white coat and badge, the block letters “3rd Year Medical Student” unmistakable in fresh ink. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to look up at the cancer center.
This is going to be difficult, I thought.
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.
Last patient of the day, and of the work week! I was finishing what felt like my Thursday Night Endurance Test, after which I could go home to my family, and eventually to bed.
As on so many Thursdays, I was running behind. My final appointment was with a new patient, Ann Miller. Before entering the exam room, I did some fact-finding.
“Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes!” my dad often crows.
This phrase takes me back to my boyhood, watching the Cricket World Cup matches with him. Time and again, I would pray fervently for an Indian win, but watch in increasing desperation as India threw away an insurmountable lead and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Neither dead nor alive,
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,
we drop our holiday mood
like a heavy sweater in the heat
when that call sends us reeling
as leukemia sucks us
into its bell jar, rings
our ears, jangles
We can’t lower that volume
but distraction is at hand–
tickets to Porgy and Bess—
though I forget it begins
with a knife