Words Mean So Little When Someone Means So Much

Nguyen, Nina

That morning, I did not know if my heart was racing because a car nearly hit me when I crossed University Avenue on a red light, or because it was my last day at the hospital.

Only the faint hum of the elevator greeted me when I arrived on the floor, surprisingly quiet. My preceptor, usually eager to discuss the cases before rounds, was staring at me from across the hallway, his arms crossed. A swarm of scrubs already crowded the room he was facing, leaving me tiptoeing in the doorstep while I was trying to figure out the story among the whispers, the shouts, and the moans.

And the beeps.

Beeps that sounded just like in the movies. The medical student’s smile froze as a chill shook her confidence, turning seconds into minutes.

My quivering hands tried to hide in my pockets, but I remembered that my dress had none. And I was not wearing a white coat either, because nobody in this palliative care unit wore white. Except for those who left the unit feet forward, eyes closed.

“Hey, are you okay?” My preceptor’s voice burst the nurses’ shouts that were burying the patient’s cries of pain.

“Yes,” the medical student thought, but her eyes swelled up with tears.

I wanted to look up, but my gaze was locked on the patient’s hands. The same hands that held mine only two days ago, wishing me good luck on my future career, were already turning blue. The machines were beeping even faster now—maybe as fast as my heart rate— so I cupped her hands into mine in the hope of being useful.

“Stop the IV.”

The whole room stared at my preceptor’s frown.

“Stop the antibiotics.”

Only the ventilating machine dared to stab the heavy silence that fell on the room.

“But Doctor…,” a nurse shyly protested.

He coughed, and he crossed his arms again. “I’m sorry...” He reached for the patient’s radial artery, and then placed the nurse’s fingers on it. She moved them around once. Twice. No pulse. A muffled moan. The husband suddenly fell on his chair, his hands hiding the distress flowing out of his eyes.

The medical student tried to speak, but the doctor raised a finger, reminding her that words sometimes are not strong enough.

The doctor left the bedside, put his hand on the husband’s shoulder, and gently smiled. Faintly, but enough to stop the man’s shoulders from shaking. He looked up, and the doctor sat down too to stare at his watery eyes, his smile still lighting his face.

“I’m here for you if there’s anything. I’m the family doctor taking care of your wife,” my preceptor reminded him, his voice still steady despite the wrinkles on his forehead.

The medical student’s eyes widened. Her breath shortened. She understood. The bulge on the abdomen. The strange bowel sounds. The slowing heart rate. The intubation. The antibiotics. The pain.

The husband nodded, his lips slowly curling up despite the deep breathing of his wife in the background. The nurses slowly started to leave the bedside now that more pain medication had been given to the patient, but we stayed to share a short moment of silence.

“Thanks, Doc. Thanks for being here. For her. For me.”

The husband stood up to run his fingers along his wife’s bald head, his other hand brushing her wedding band. He took her reading glasses off, placing them carefully on the untouched novel lying on the side table. He tried to smudge the wrinkles left by the glasses’ nose pads, but her skin was already stiff.

“I’m sorry that’s all we could do. I…,” my preceptor started explaining, his voice sounding deeper than usual.

So preceptors too have emotions, the medical student understood. Becoming a doctor does not stop you from being human. Becoming a doctor makes you more human.

“That’s all we needed, Doc. Your care, not your meds.”

We smiled, and then shut the door behind when we left the room, without knowing that it would be empty the next time we would be back. Walking down the hallways towards the nurses’ station in silence with my usually garrulous preceptor reminded me that, sometimes, the best medicine is simply our presence.

The sun was already setting down when I made it to the airport. When the plane started roaring its engines, slowly crawling towards the track, all I could hear was the deep, labored breathing she had that morning.

The medical student should have remembered. Chest rattle. That was the fourth sign of imminent death.

That morning, my heart was racing not because I was afraid of death, but rather because I did not know how to bid farewell.

Theme: Death and Dying | Décès et le mourir
Theme: Physicians | Médecins
Theme: Teaching and Learning | Enseignement et apprentissage

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




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