I was nervous. I had never been this close to someone who was about to die. I introduced myself, but the patient was non-responsive. I told her that I was going to sit with her and that I would stay for a few hours. As I sat down, I noticed her breathing--it was irregular, and each breath sounded like she was slowly and painfully drowning. Almost trying to distract myself from her breathing, I studied her face. The structure of her face--her jaw- and cheekbones--was well defined. My eyes wandered from her head to her shoulders and along her arms, and then I saw her hands.
“We have explored the chest cavity and the abdominal cavity. It is now time to move onto the extremities, starting with the arms. I want you to unwrap the arms and study the anatomy of the arms and the hands. I’ll come by each group to go over exactly what I want you to do. Okay, everyone, let’s get started,” he says.
I turn to my group. “Who wants to do the unwrapping?”
I was terrified the first day of lab. Terrified of the slice of a scalpel through human skin. And, most of all, terrified of how I would react to the shock of making that first cut.
I did make that first cut and many more afterward. I didn’t pass out, and eventually my heart stopped pounding when I picked up the scalpel. As time went on, we learned an impossible amount about the way humans are made, the way the pieces fit together. That was your gift to us, and I want to thank you.
Though I must admit, it felt almost paradoxical to learn so much about you and so little at the very same time.
Even dying, Dad fills the hospital bed. He's a big man. His slumped body bears two bed sores, one on each leg. A matching set.
Once, he ruled me. A slap of one hand hand here. A smack of his other hand there. "I'll give you something to cry about."
It was a Friday night in February. I was finishing up a poster for a conference on cancer genomics I had to attend the following Monday. As I worked, I thought about the possibility of making mistakes on the data analysis.
Gingerly, I went back to the raw data and repeated the process. Highlight this portion of the data. Make sure the data is valid. Copy and paste it into the statistical software. Click this button before pressing "Enter." My eyes darted across the screen, watching every move my fingers made.
Gingerly, I slide my hands under his sausage-like arms, my fingers cradling the doughy curves of his tiny neck, caressing the orange-yellow cornsilk on his occiput. Slowly, I lift him from the sterile white mattress he’s called home for the month since his exit from the womb, since his insurmountable hurdles began.
It was a Friday afternoon in May, a week before my stepdaughter died. I was holding a solo vigil on the couch next to her bed, while she slept peacefully.
Her hair had started growing back, soft and thick and gray. I loved to rub my hand across her head.
I was the new doc in a small country town. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to do best for my new patients.
She was the town matriarch. She had multiple chronic illnesses. She had the power to make me or break me.
I told my dad I'd take care of the problem, dialed the front desk number, and listened to Jose explain that the other night attendant had left for an emergency, and he was under strict orders to never leave the desk unattended.
No. Look at your hands. These will be the most important tools of your chosen profession.
He and I--an experienced physician and a nascent medical student, respectively--are sitting on our living-room couch next to a twenty-year-old neighbor who's asked for advice, after explaining that he's had a sore throat, fever, and fatigue for the past two weeks.
I'm honored to have known you, I'm glad I had a chance to hold your hand before your surgery, and I will forever remember you as my first patient who passed away.
Within the first few seconds of meeting you, I knew you were a sweet person and had a wonderful, giving soul. I hope you are at peace where you are now. I hope you are no longer suffering.
The drug wore off, and in a minute's time I travelled from epidural bliss to full-on, body-wrenching pain. An ominous feeling welled up inside me, and then it came bursting out in a primal scream.
"Your hands are cold."
I heard these words throughout my third year of medical school, the year during which we first touched patients on a routine basis.
My hands were cold. I was nervous; how could I not be? What a strange experience for me--asking strangers to disrobe, then touching their bare skin.