the first

On morning rounds, my attending asked me a question. “How long do you think he has?” It wasn’t the usual test-your-knowledge pimping that we’ve gotten used to as doctors in training.  She genuinely wanted to know what I thought.

* * *

I’ve been privileged to stand witness only twice.

Six years ago, I drove down to McHenry from Wisconsin to be with my aunt. With her family—her sister, my mom and dad, my brother and his wife–we stood at her bedside as the ventilator was switched off. It was anticipated and planned, for as much as such a thing could be planned given that it was only two weeks earlier that she had successfully had a heart valve replacement and her room was decorated with the well wishes of “get well soon” balloons that were still there.

I really hate those balloons.

Four years ago, we—Scott’s friends—were in the middle of working out a schedule so that one of us would always be around to provide support for his mom, who had been with him every minute of his hospital stay. It was nighttime and I was getting ready to go back home to Wisconsin to show my face at work before coming back for my scheduled support shift, but our plans were soon to become moot. I don’t know what his prognosis had been—did he have hours? days? weeks? months?—maybe I was being purposefully ignorant—but we had been preparing for the long haul.

Scott had a group of close friends that had been with him since high school, but he and I only became friends many years later. They were present for his passing, with the exception of Joe. I asked Michael why I should have been there and not Joe.

“You needed to be there to get the story,” just as he so often is, to be the keeper of the story.

* * *

I wasn’t present when he passed away. I arrived at the hospital in the morning and asked my intern if he had seen him yet. “He passed away about an hour ago.”

When my attending asked me how long I thought he had, I sighed and shook my head. I thought of my aunt. I thought of Scott. “I don’t know. Maybe a day.”

Sometimes, there is no reward in being right.

i can’t remember why she asked

“What are you going to do when a patient dies?” Vicky, the M4 I was pseudo-shadowing, asked me. Wasting no time in lobbing the hard questions at the not-quite-a-first-year, I see. And one who hasn’t yet fully wrapped his head around the fact that he’s no longer an engineer, but a doctor-to-be…

It’s not that I’m naive about the sadder aspects of my new profession, nor that I’m a stranger to death. I just think it’s one of those things that you can’t fully anticipate nor fully prepare for. And her question certainly wasn’t something I was expecting at a health fair for school kids.

I stood in silent contemplation for a few moments; but I dare say I wouldn’t actually be able to answer her until I’m actually faced with it.

travel safe, mr. shady.

I wasn’t expecting to make those calls again so soon–those calls that no one ever really knows how to make, those calls that, if you’re on the other end, you don’t know what to say in response. If not for that always-on connection that is my iPhone, I might have been relieved of that responsibility. But because I did get the message when I did… it’s one small thing I could do for a friend I hadn’t seen for years. Fred, I will try to make it out to see you, one last time.

Fred and Donna at graduation
This is always how I picture Fred.

By the way, I’m way past done with tragedy for this year.

“I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy. And I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph. And for all the times in between, I just want to be able to look them in the eye.” -Josh Lyman, The West Wing