Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dialects of love

[Disclaimer: Names and all sorts of details have been changed to maintain confidentiality. As such, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental.]

7:30 a.m., reporting for duty to the intensive care unit. I was just two months shy of finishing third year, and thought myself immune to the beeps and alarms that passed for signs of life in the hospital.

My fellow took a break from pre-rounding to assign me a patient. No new admissions had come in for quite some time, so she instead assigned me a young gentleman, Coby, who had been in the ICU for almost two months.

I hurriedly jotted down an abbreviated clinical introduction – student, sudden collapse, intracranial bleed, herniation, not arousable – and an even more abbreviated social introduction – dedicated family.

Dedicated family. Close-knit. One could mistakenly think we minimize their depth of commitment with our sparse words. But the fellow’s words were accompanied by a note of grief, a glance toward Coby’s room to reassure herself the family was okay, not flagging someone down in a panic. But the glance was reflexive – his room was around the corner, out of sight. She said, “Talk to them, and answer their questions if you can. But never assume.”

I steeled myself to approach Coby and his family, not out of apprehension in interacting with them but because I could not predict their response to me and my own response to the situation. As a medical student, I had little exposure to the trials of the ICU, abode to some of the sickest patients in the hospital. What comfort could I, an inexperienced physician-in-training possibly offer a tortured family? I was young enough to be their child. Would they view me as insolent? Presumptuous? The stark white walls of the hallway to his room offered no solace, as if mocking my supposed “immunity” to the sounds they channeled to my ears.

My apprehensions were unrealized, at least for that first entry into his room. He was alone, harsh vent-supported breaths rippling from his trach collar, even as the cardiac monitor beeped at a deceptively regular rhythm. But before I saw Coby, I saw the walls of his room, plastered floor-to-ceiling with posters, cards, sports logos, a fraternity sweatshirt. His friends told him to hurry up so they could get back to their soccer tourney. His niece was waiting to show him her newest toy. There were colored pencil drawings of mountain ranges and rainbows, a cup of coffee, a rainy day. In his silence, the colors on the walls screamed their love.

Expressions of love lurk in many nooks and crannies of the hospital, not always with bright colors and words of sentiment. Down the hall from Coby’s room, an elderly lady’s daughters posted an austere sign on the IV pole by her bedside: “Say ‘Hi’ to me…I cannot see.” Anytime someone entered the lady’s room, she strained her neck in indecision, unsure which direction to turn her head. Some staff were cognizant and lent her the thread of their voice. Others remained painfully invisible, dismissive of the sign and silent in their breach of social contract.

Two floors below on another ward, the headboard above a comatose patient’s bed is carpeted in words of faith, in stark black and gray and white. Some are methodically stenciled in pencil. Others are sketched in permanent marker, as if to impart endurance. John 10:10. Exodus 15:26. Luke 1:37. Jehovah-Rapha: I am the Lord your physician.

When I graduated from college, my best friend’s mother gifted me a shivling, representing the infinity of creation, the cycle of life. “May it guide your healing hands,” she said. I wear it as my own token from a loved one, in the hospital where balloons and stuffed animals offer affection in proxy. 

I spent several minutes more than I had been granted standing by Coby’s bedside. The sobering faith adorning his walls sank under my skin. His wrist felt clammy under my one hand, as my other hand reached up to grip my pendant. The smooth, dry surface was at odds with the dampness hanging heavily in the room – from his skin, from his vent. 

His family returned to the room. Their lips moved interminably in silent prayer, loath to break their cadence of insistent hope for a green stranger. His aunt adjusted the temperature on his heated blanket, and meticulously jotted numbers in her pocket notebook. His mother stood by his pillows with a wash towel in hand, gently wiping the drool he could no longer control. His father stood watch at the foot of the bed, doggedness in his spine and weariness in his shoulders. 

And I found myself backing into the corner, head bent, eyes closed. The colors from his walls danced behind my eyelids as I yearned for the solace I had sought to provide. I did not disturb their vigil with empty words, for I had no answers, only questions.


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