The 24-hour urine collection was nearing its 18th hour when the nurse on the floor approached me with a sheepish expression. I’ve gotten used to being the person with the least amount of authority and have historically thought of myself as unintimidating, and yet here I was, preparing to receive her confession. She said the sample from this hour was flushed away, never to be seen, heard from or counted. We would have to start over. All the way over.
I promised them a birthday treat. I ended up making decidedly unextraordinary banana muffins and reminded myself that there’s such a thing as half-birthdays.
Lots of people get bigger bellies as they age. My aunt used to say it was because of all the love in your life building up. This man noticed his belly was growing a little more than expected. Then the pain began. “It was just a little bit of pain at first. Then a little more, a little more, a lot more.” A CT scan two months ago, long before we met, revealed stage IV pancreatic cancer. Sinister spindles of tumor wrapping around his organs and arteries like ivy. He kept it to himself: the diagnosis, the prognosis, everything. From coworkers, his children, even from his wife of 43 years. She and I found out he was dying at the same time.
I shouldn’t have shown him after a long car ride. I know how tired it makes us, but I just couldn’t help myself. We had been driving for over 12 hours in the last two days, but this would be my first time wearing my wedding dress since I tried on a sample back in February 2020. It didn’t arrive in time for our COVID-style wedding; I settled for a simple, less extravagant backup. Before selling it, I attempted to create the first-look experience we didn’t get to have a year prior. Without makeup, messy bun and all, I slipped it on, stood on my tip-toes, and waited to be seen. My heart was racing, just the way I thought it would. When he saw me, he smiled gently, kissed me, then asked if I was ready to go home. I answer with an anti-climactic thump as my heels hit the ground.
I quickly forgot the whitehead that had been the annoying center of my attention while watching a burn patient be, quite literally, skinned alive with a 3M razor in an OR heated above 100 degrees. Dante forgot to tell us what circle this scene belongs in. I repent of my self-centeredness and try to stay vertical. With echoes, smells and sites still singed onto my body, I listen to my next patient tell me about their “excruciating” abdominal pain, waiting for a break to tell them they have constipation. I recommend Miralax and try to repent of my indifference.
“The best thing you can do to not get another DVT is to get up and walk a few times a day. Can you do that for me?” He nods his head yes. “Ok, when I come back to check on you, you won’t be here. You’ll be strolling in the hallway, right?” Another nod. That afternoon I hear him shifting in bed from outside the room and the soft click of a remote control.
I see one man dropping off another as I make my way through the hospital doors under the early morning darkness. I thought the first man was just being a good friend, taking the second man to the hospital on his way to work. Then I heard the first man ask for the other’s name and realized that he had picked up a stranger he thought was in trouble and brought him in. The first man said it was the right thing to do. The second said thank you. They hugged and parted ways. I hope not forever.
The sign on the grocery store that once jubilantly read, “Masks no longer required!” now reads, “Masks recommended for all customers.” I watch other customers alternate masking and not masking with both neutral and incredulous looks at the shoppers around them. I decide to slip on the extra mask that I keep in my coat pocket and hope the store isn’t out of sweet potatoes again this week.
I walk by my dying patient’s room and see someone kneeling next to their bed, holding their hands, praying. I see tears run down my patient’s face for the first time since admission in victorious surrender to the unknown next step.
In all of these moments, the most blessed reminder is this: people are doing their best.
This is Water is an attempt at documenting intentional living. This column will strive to highlight the extraordinary meaning of the often unnoticed, and to greet the hard and joyful parts of the medical school experience with gratitude (even when, especially when, we don’t feel like it).