I was 14 at the time. At this age, I didn’t have the education to know what a positive pressure ventilator was, much less was I able to weigh the merits between a central and peripheral IV. But as I revisit the memory, I realize that many of the tubes and gauges are no longer unnamed.
There is still more machine than man in front of me, but now he fits into one sentence: 78 yo Caucasian man with 75 pack/year smoking history, CHF and s/p cabbage x 3, 3 years ago here with worsening SOB. After three years of medical school, I’ve had to formulate many chief complaints. This is one of my better ones. If my senior resident was with me, he might smile, “very succinct.”
On this revisit of the past, I wonder if the man in my memory has a team of residents caring for him. Maybe, there is even a medical student on call. If it were me, I’d be annoyed at this man’s admission. He was clearly a poor historian with a long medical history and at 2 a.m. I would say goodbye to sleeping that night.
At the time of the memory, I hadn’t seen him in two years. He and my mother didn’t get along. The drive to Iowa was also long, and my mother worked a lot. I didn’t want to miss school or swim meets. The word “excuse” comes to mind and brings its oft-companion, “guilt.” Only familiarity allows me to welcome them into the room this time without a second thought.
This is the first time I’ve seen a dying man. Hollow and thin, I think of the physio respiratory lecture. The man on the bed is definitely a pink puffer. He’d be leaning forward with his hands on his knees if he wasn’t so weak. Netter couldn’t draw a better picture. Instead, the man lays there with pursed lips occasionally uttering broken sentences. He still manages a smile when he sees us. Thin hair and pale blue eyes speak of his age.
Uncomfortable, I look at my hands. Slender and soft, my grandmother comments on them frequently. I don’t yet have the scar from the kitchen knife, but the ten years since the visit won’t do much beyond that to change their appearance.
His hands poke out from the hospital covers. I know that underneath are two spindly arms, wasted of muscle and flesh. I know this because my grandmother had just rearranged the blankets to cover them. This current arrangement seems more fitting.
Large, even his pinkies are thicker than my thumbs. More bravery than brains, they reminded me of two soldiers holding an indefensible line. Although age and disease would prevail in the end, right now they mark a time when this man was once strong.
As I stood in front of my grandfather, fifty years passed in front of my eyes. A house was built, fields were plowed. My father was born, fed, and clothed. My hands would never look like the ones resting on the hospital bed in front of me. Suburban hands stay soft and slender even with a gym membership and the occasional callous. As the memories flashed by, I saw countless Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. Finally, the reel came to an end and the old man once again lay before me.
I hadn’t been to a Thanksgiving or Christmas in Iowa in over two years. I knew so little about those hands, yet without them, I would not be here. Though I was their product, I now felt like an intruder in their presence. A moment this intimate was for close family, not an on-and-off grandchild with soft, slender hands.
Now he needed to urinate. He couldn’t leave the bed. We didn’t leave the room. Visiting hours were growing short. He pulled up his hospital gown so that he could hold himself while my grandmother held the plastic container in front of him. Urine dribbled and splattered over his legs and the blankets. If he hadn’t started crying, I might have. Shaking and weak, his disease not only took his strength but demanded his dignity. It was okay, he wouldn’t need them the next day.