River Stones

You are deliberate and precise,

I have a way of flailing.

 

I have ambition and drive,

You have a way of caring.

 

We smooth each others’ edges,

We round each other off.

 

Yes you and I, dear sister,

Are like polished river rocks.

Superfluous Compassion.


Health care is often the true test of patience. You enter the field for what you imagine to be a fulfilling task of care and compassion, but quickly learn that your service and treatments are not always wanted or appreciated.

It is frustrating when patients incessantly hammer their call light, asking for a steady flow of Lorna Doones or endless trips to the bathroom due to that darned enlarged prostate. Even the most tolerant of individuals grow weary of an encephalopathic patient that refuses to stay in bed, leaving you sprinting to their room every ten minutes at the call of the bed alarm. When you’re angrily swatted away for trying to give a bed bath to an odiferous, hairy, morbidly obese man, the thought can cross your mind, “Why am I trying so hard to care for them, when they clearly don’t care themselves?” Twelve hour days of changing soiled linens, catering like a waitress juggling diet cokes and pudding, and swinging along at the bottom of the medical totem pole is arduous. And then I hear the word, “superfluous”.

I was helping a particularly demanding patient of mine in the shower, after hours of persistent re-filling of her ice packs and tugging her draw sheet just one inch this way, no, wait, one inch back. Her pain meds had her rambling on about one thing or another, and I heard the word, “superfluous” rattled off. I stopped dead in my tracks and asked her to repeat what she had said. I loved the word instantly and quickly asked to know what it meant. During the rest of the conversation, she casually utilized multi-syllable words like preponderance and perilous, and my IQ gained a few points in her presence.

It is the little quirks about each patient that make my job bearable and exciting. Sure, the patient with pneumonia is constantly asking for warm blankets, but she has the sweetest southern twang that will melt your heart when you hear it. Maybe the wobbly patient with the bad hip takes half a century to teeter into the bathroom, but you notice how she carefully places the cheap, disposable toothbrush on a neatly folded paper towel. You imagine the hard life she must have lived and realize you could learn a thing or two from her careful prudence.

My patients have filled me up with priceless moments I will never forget. Like being told that the dripping sound I kept hearing was actually my patient’s artificial heart valves, to which I couldn’t help but squeal and bounce in excitement. Or being told the secret to a happy marriage by a couple in their 90’s, who gazed at each other like they were still giddy from meeting for the first time (It is caring for them more than you care for yourself, if you were wondering). I remember speaking with a tearful mother for hours about the meaning of life and what comes after, as spinal fluid dripped from her son’s nose like a faucet.

Patients require patience.

But ultimately, there is so much to be learned from each nagging call light. We just have to be willing to slow down to see it, or stop talking to hear it.

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First Encounter.

When I woke this morning, I felt as if someone was pressing their thumb into my mind, trying to impress a white indentation of a message. The clouds were hanging low in the sky, and the lush smell of rain smoothed my mood into a calm, peaceful state. On the drive to work, the pressing thumb didn’t give up. I was walking into work, admiring how beautiful the endless wall of glass of windows looked as they reflected the scarlet clouds and rising sun when the message finally popped through:
I am Love.

It took me off guard, but settled into my heart like a pet finding it’s home. As the hours passed, I would come to understand the full meaning of this message.

I wasn’t supposed to work today, it was an extra shift. I wasn’t supposed to be sitting today, because I sat two days ago. Yet here I was, sitting for a patient with shocking resemblance to my father. His daughter was with him, who reminded me of an older version of myself when I had sat by my father’s bedside. As the morning progressed, his condition showed rapid improvement. Not only could he understand me and recognize his daughter, but he could follow commands, speak, read, and write. With such great strides, the daughter changed his status from DNR to full code. Shortly after, he began to decline, and a MET team was called. As the swarm of doctors and nurses flooded into the room, I caught a glimpse of his daughter sitting alone in the corner, watching them huddle over her father. I squeezed my way through the crowd and sat beside her, unsure of what to say. Suddenly words were flowing out of my mouth, recounting stories of her father’s strength and fighting spirit that she had missed while she had been gone earlier. I told her about how brave he had been as they bridled his MFT, squeezing his eyes shut and gritting through the pain. We spoke of his stubbornness, and laughed about how he has always been a fighter. After they intubated him and wheeled him out, I offered to help her carry her things. I said a few short words and left, and later dropped off some ice cream for her when my shift was over. I’m not sure if she felt annoyed by my gestures or if she would even eat it, but I somehow knew it was what I had to do. After work, I went to the gym and immediately began running on the treadmill (which I never do). I cried while I ran, great heaving sobs, pushing away the tears as they poured out. I cried for her, imagining the pain she must be enduring leaving her two small children in another state to be here for her dad. I felt her uncertainty trying to decide whether to fight for her father’s life, or let him go. I cried for him, such a young man enduring so much grief.

Today was completely mentally and emotionally draining. But this is the work I was meant to do. These are the people I was meant to influence. A greater force than myself drew a circle in the earth long ago, and it is precisely where I am standing.

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These Hands of Yours.

“I have recognized God’s hands scrubbing my matted hair and sweaty, bedridden body, or bringing me fresh water or making my bed. It is His hands that caught me when I fell, and worked to figure out how to make the text size larger on my cell phone. This is a place all about healing.”

This is part of a letter written to me by a patient I have cared for on multiple occasions. I started crying just a few sentences in, and the tears kept creeping out of my eyes long after I finished it. This job can be tiring. There are days where am constantly cleaning up soiled briefs or vomit. There are patients that are mentally exhausting with endless demands and criticism. There are large, hairy bodies that I must scrub, despite their grudging wishes. This job can leave you feeling entirely exhausted and degraded.

Until you hear words like hers.

She told me how much of an impact I had on her during her stays, and how often she thought of me during her recovery. She assured me of the great doctor I will one day become because of the many gifts I possess. Her words made me reconsider some of my own routine habits, with statements like this:

“Have you ever felt frustrated by your own limitations, often to the point of tears, only to be told “it’s ok” or “you’re doing great”?”

Her words resonated deep in my spirit, fueling the fire that drove me into medicine in the first place. The same feeling I felt when handing a broken, poverty stricken mother a simple antibiotic for her crying child. The same feeling I felt when braiding a small girls hair in the hospital bathroom, while her mother is wheeled off for a medical procedure. It is a clarity; a swelling of warmth and profound understanding. This is my purpose. This is God’s love working through my hands.