The Lady Doctor

2013
Ali, Tahmeena

She maneuvered into the congested parking lot. Furry green moss grew amongst the paving stones on the berm. Glancing into the rearview mirror, she applied ruby lipstick; one concession to vanity in the morning. Nearly five decades of age, she felt agile enough to train for one marathon annually, yet she wondered if she could give her patients what they needed every day.

Before walking into the hospital, she sat in the car and admired the view. In the distance, mountain peak silhouettes mirrored the edges of a key. Erratic; their outline matched no other. The aesthetics of her natural surroundings always mesmerized her.

She heaved her crimson tote: it overflowed with medical journals, pens, a wallet, her stethoscope decorated with a Thai elephant charm, a bag of almonds, and crumpled receipts for yesterday's coffee onto her shoulder.

Her best efforts to start early today failed her; she arrived ten minutes later than hoped. Her eldest son couldn't find his library book, and her youngest insisted on wearing tattered jeans to school. Maternity leaves helped her realize that full-time mothering wasn't her calling. Escaping to a world of needy adults satisfied her more than attempting to satiate the demands of her needy children. Work offered a sense of mastery. She knew how to comfort her patients; however, on countless occasions, she floundered in quelling her children's wails.

With an inner scowl and an outward chuckle, she remembered when she cursed at her second born. Just her and a 3 month old on a desolate February night. He remained alert despite being nursed, changed and rocked incessantly. Her body hungered for blissful slumber under her cozy comforter. In a burst of frustration, she shouted to the bawling bundle in her arms, 'What the fuck do you want from me?" For a moment, silence enveloped the room--- his stunned expression at the violence of her words penetrating her eyes. Within moments, he resumed crying. She can't remember when he ultimately fell asleep, but she convinced herself that for days after, he looked at her with scorn: aware of her brute words and the damage they inflicted on both of them. One more drop of the endless stream of guilt she poured over herself.

Steps into the hospital, her shoulder already ached. The bag was powerless from preventing her another morning indulgence: a cup of coffee. Placing a red travel mug on the counter, she dug into her wallet to obtain the necessary coinage.

"Double double, please." Fortified with caffeine, she trotted up the concrete stairs to Mr. Von Lipinski's ward. Even though the renumeration barely covered parking, she enjoyed making hospital rounds. The morose putrid setting contained wisdom from inhabitants she respected.

Rounding the corner, she noticed him from a distance. He appeared older today.

Seated in the geri chair, terry cloth bib around his neck, the remains of breakfast were scattered over his face. He slumped to the side and her own heart ached for his.

Last year, Mr. Von Lipinski--- hospitalized with pneumonia--- made his most endearing remark. It was an interminable day because her partners were on vacation.

She had completed 24 hours of maternity call at the hospital with 3 hours sleep, then a 10 hour clinic day, and concluded with evening rounds on inpatients. By the time she reached Mr. Von Lipinski's room, she was spent.

After detailing his expected course of recovery to his son, Miles, Mr. Von Lipinski urged her to sit on a chair. Exhausted, she obliged.

“Folks just need to do the smallest things for each other, and it makes a world of difference. Look at you, doc. You've been working for hours on end, but here you are, patiently telling Miles that his dad will live to see another day. Probably will just anger the ol' bugger since he only wants my insurance money... see, even your laughter at my bad jokes shows how much you give. And that giving is appreciated, doc. It is."

More powerful than any stimulant: a patient's validation; an addictive drug for the ego; a mistress's affections that surpassed those of the wife. Nothing else compared to the adoration from a grateful patient.

She envied Mr. and Mrs. Von Lipinski's successful marriage. Not only had she cared for Mr. Von Lipinski since her arrival, she also accompanied Mrs. Von Lipinski upon her departure from this world. The poignancy of the Von Lipinskis' love resonated because her own marriage's death precipitated this recent move. Arduous hours at the hospital, distracted evenings in front of the computer, and cancelled date nights eroded her husband's patience. She and the boys relocated here to establish a new rhythm.

Returning to the present, she grimaced. Mr. Von Lipinski looked defeated. She dreaded telling him he may never return home. A home she often visited to perform house calls.

Her sons teased her about this.

"Mom, it's 2013. Why are you doin' house calls? Why don't you just FaceTime or Skype him or something?”

This new generation: the techno-natives. They undervalue the human touch. For many of her patients, a visit from her served as the only human contact they had for weeks. Between home delivered medications and meals, many never left their homes. Weeks could pass without hearing another's voice. She relished seeing them as much as they anticipated her checkups. The quaint “tea & toast” ladies, nicknamed for their favored evening meals, loved fussing over her and hearing her sons' latest shenanigans.

Her patients taught her the art of patience. In those early years of sleep deprivation, soiled diapers, and continuous disarray, she never wished any of it away.

Even when swearing at her infant son, she savored every moment because she knew that was all there was. Life. It was dirty at times. Difficult at others. But so many moments of transcendence in between.

Before she contemplated motherhood, she imagined an existence without children--- being alone at the end of her life. The savagery of that possibility anguished her. The chance that her death would be meaningless. By then, her parents would be gone, most probably her siblings, friends, and peers. She would leave no legacy behind.  A future without children was like staring down the barrel of a gun: cold, narrow, bleak. She made the choice in an instant.

She no longer shared a life with her husband, but she loved him for the gift of their two sons. Further down the continuum of life, she would be in Mr. Von Lipinski's place. Seated in a geri chair, staring ahead at grubby mustard walls.

The piercing sound of an overhead page disrupted her musings. Mr. Von Lipinski sat before her, and she needed time to doctor him.

Theme: Community | Communauté
Theme: Death and Dying | Décès et le mourir
Theme: Health Care Delivery | Prestation des soins de santé
Theme: Relationships | Relations

Stories in Family Medicine | Récits en médecine familiale [Internet] Mississauga ON: College of Family Physicians of Canada. 2008 --.

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