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When Medicine Makes ‘Miracles’

“He’s had enough, you don’t want to put him through any more.” Dr. Acharya’s soft jowls folded into a cool smile, as though he hadn’t thought of acids unfiltered by failing kidneys. I dug my fingernails into my palms.

Glancing at the bed where my grandfather lay, I watched his bare, gray skin grip the scar that split his ribcage in two. Behind his parted eyelids were unfocused blue eyes, glazed with whitish film. He hardly knew we were there — hovering over him — deciding whether he would have a chance to live and suffer, or whether he would suffer and die.

Dr. Acharya never knew the real Andrew Paulucci, the man that came before the bypass surgery, before the series of fugitive strokes, before confusion and deafness rotted away my grandfather’s spirit. He never knew how it felt to dance on grandpa’s feet, to breathe the smell of stale cigars that clung to his chest, to hear him say, “When you walk in heah, the whole room lights up.” Dr. Acharya only saw this pale, quivering body, its hands clasped in prayers Andrew Paulucci never would have spoken.

When the surgeon came in, I leapt out of my chair, eager for her to tell me a way out. “This procedure could fix his kidney,” she said. I gulped down the hope that infused the room. When the surgeon’s eyes stole away to the monitor and the wires tethered to my grandfather, the air deserted my lungs. “He’s really sick. There’s a chance he won’t come off the ventilator once we finish.”

I tried to focus my anxious mind on the conversation that followed. Something about power of attorney. Then something about suspending a DNR. Finally, the surgeon looked at us and said, “It’s really up to you.”

My grandmother’s gaze fixed on her husband’s chest, which heaved in white, shallow waves like gasps of a laboratory mouse. I watched her search for the dark-haired man who approached her in a bowling alley, 60 years earlier, to say she had the most beautiful figure he’d ever seen. “It’s really up to you,” the surgeon reminded us.

The night before the procedure, my grandfather was awake. I asked him if he wanted me to sing, hoping to recreate the moments during my childhood in which he had belted show tunes in the living room after dinners of pasta and braccioles. He asked me to sing Sinatra’s “My Way,” a favorite he used to play on the ’61 jukebox he’d snagged from a closing pizzeria in the Bronx. The song began in sputters: And now… the end is near… and so I face… the final curtain. These opening lyrics halted in my throat, no longer words trying to escape, but rather, more like a billiard ball I needed to swallow. Through my tightened throat, the music withered to whimpers.

That night, my family filled pensive silences with the droning TV and the splash of Jack Daniel’s in glasses. “We’re doing the right thing, right?” my mom kept asking, the pitch of the question rising with each drink.

In the morning, seven of us huddled in the ice-cold holding bay outside the operating room and said goodbye to my grandfather. When I took his hand, my grandfather looked distracted. He asked me for a hat.

“He’s cold,” my aunt cooed, brushing her father’s head. Beneath her words, I heard, he looks so fragile.

I folded a pillowcase and covered the wisps of hair that stretched over his brown-spotted scalp. I kissed his forehead the way I would kiss a child. When the metal doors closed, I squeezed my mother’s hand.

My grandfather survived and my grandma considers it Christ’s miracle. I can’t trust myself to know a miracle from a mistake.

Medicine gave us more chances to squeeze my grandpa’s hand, and for this, surgery was the ‘right’ choice. Each strike through the hollow boxes on the calendar adds to our fragile vindication. We breathe deep and smile and tighten our grips on our own slippery youth, and never notice the warmth dissipating from that hand we begged to hold.

After a family dinner where we toast to our patriarch, I steal away to my grandfather’s darkened bedroom. He leans over the edge of the bed, his crooked fingers gripping the blankets at his sides. His arms are fledgling wings, the soft flesh hanging from them like discarded dough; they quiver as he strains to lift his weight from the human-shaped depression in the bed. I stiffen my chest with a deep breath and walk toward him. I kneel at his feet and cover his tired hands with mine. His clothes are soiled: stained with urine and crumbs of blood from scabs he peeled raw in his sleep.

I help him undress, catching the eyes of the photograph on the wall, where a young Andy Paulucci — tan and proud — flashes a charming smile. I wonder if the man in the photo can see the withered shadow he left behind.

“I want you to do what’s best for your grandfather,” Dr. Acharya had said. As a physician-in-training, I imagine myself speaking those same words. Knowing too well that ache to hold onto the person I love, I would add, “not only what’s best for you.” I look at the knuckles I blanched when Dr. Acharya asked me to let Grandpa go, and I unclench my fists. Slowly, the red crescent moons I left in my palms begin to fade.

Jes Minor Jes Minor (5 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Yale School of Medicine

Bridging the divide between the biomedical and social sciences, Jes enjoys her unique position as an anthropology MD-PhD student to advocate for social justice at Yale. Apart from academics and service, Jes relishes the chance to overfeed guests in the style of her Italian-Chilean upbringing and to dance until she bursts into laughter. Follow her on Twitter @jes_minor