Category Archives: Writings

Flashback

“What branch of the service were you in?” I asked him, as I always do when admitting a new patient at the VA.

“The Marine Corps.” he replied. Oh God, I thought to myself, he has seen some shit.

“Where did you serve?” I asked, again as I always do.

He paused just a second. “Iwo Jima” he said, and I saw his eyes get shiny with tears. I gripped his hand.

“Thank you,” I said, “thank you for your service”.
***********************************************************
Mr R didn’t stay long, he recovered quickly and was ready to get back to splitting wood on his farm in a few days. Like most of the WWII vets, though, he grew on me. When he was getting ready to be discharged, I sat down with him to go over his medications and instructions for follow-up. When we were done, I stood up and shook his hand. “It’s been a pleasure,” I said, “you take care of yourself.”

He got misty-eyed again and said “Well, this is a better place than where I was 63 years ago.” I sat down again and took his hand. “I’m glad you’re here now Mr R, I’m glad you made it.” He smiled and said he was glad too.

“Just one story” he said a little sheepishly, asking me to indulge him. I was happy to.

“Well, my best friend in the service got wounded when we were landing at Iwo Jima. He was a skinny little guy, and he took a piece of shrapnel in the shoulder. I made him stop and I bandaged it up as best as I could and we kept on going. A few days later, he told me that wound was starting to hurt pretty bad. We got the corpsman to look at it and he told my buddy he needed to go out to the hospital ship because he was right on the edge of blood poisoning. So my friend went out to the ship to get treated, and the next morning our sergeant asked where had my friend gone. I told him he had gone out to the hospital ship. Well the sergeant took that to mean he had died, and filed a report saying he had been killed in action.

Meanwhile, my friend was getting treated on the ship but wanted to come back and help us out, because he knew how bad we were getting it. So he told the doctor he wanted to leave, and even though the doctor didn’t want him to go, he let him. Before he left the ship he wrote a letter to his family letting them know he had been wounded but that he was okay. His family, who had been told he was dead, got a letter from him written from the hospital ship, dated after he had supposedly died. Now, his father called the Red Cross and asked them to sort it out, and it took them over a month to figure out what had happened, but then eventually realized that it had all been a mistake.

Well he and I stayed pretty good friends, and after the war he moved to San Antonio, Texas and had a beef ranch. He died at the beginning of this past winter, and a reporter called me up to interview me about his life. I told him this story, and the reporter and my friend’s granddaughter decided to do some research about it. It turns out that the mistake never got fixed in Washington, and so my friend has two death certificates!”

He laughed, remembering his young skinny friend who left the hospital ship to help his friends. He smiled a little self-deprecatingly at me and apologized for taking up my time with his story. I assured him sincerely that I love hearing veterans’ stories and that this was a great story to tell. We said goodbye and I walked out of the room marveling that 63 years ago he was on a pile of rock in the Pacific Ocean seeing and doing things no one should ever have to. He came home to his very small town, raised dairy cattle, sold insurance, and raised a family. He continued to attend Iwo Jima reunions and kept in touch with the men who had seen and done those horrible things too. And in his standard issue VA pajamas, this great-grandfather had more dignity and strength of character than most well-dressed executives. The term “Greatest Generation” doesn’t even come close.

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Lone traveler

I’ve been needing something to jumpstart my blogging recently. The biggest problem I have is really that I have so many things I want to say, I’m having a hard time condensing into something coherent and meaningful. So I’m going to start with Sunday Scribblings this week, we’ll see how it turns out. The prompt this week is: “Fellow Travelers”

When my son was born, I was in medical school and slogging through my last year of clinical rotations. There were several of us who had babies that year, and I was the lucky recipient of commiseration, advice, and general moral support from my fellow travelers on the motherhood and medicine pathway. We pumped breast milk together in the call rooms, we traded tips about baby food, and all used the same babysitter. It was a wonderful thing, to have friends who knew, really knew what it was like.

Now that I’m a resident, I’m the only intern with a child, and actually one of the few women in my class who is even married. Most of the women in my intern class are single, stick-thin marathon runners who are into going out post-call and singing karaoke. They tell me, “I don’t know how you do it”, and the truth is, I don’t either. I have no one who gets this. My mother is nearby and God love her, is tremendously supportive, but only in the general sense of offering desperately needed encouragement and occasional help with laundry. At work, I feel like I’m a world apart. From a career standpoint, I’m just starting out and I am so far down the ladder sometimes I’m not sure I’m even standing on the bottom rung. But from a social standpoint, I’ve been married almost five years, I have an amazing little boy, and I wish there was someone who I could see in the hallway at 2am and trade a knowing smile with.

But there isn’t. And it’s okay, most of the time. I’m thinking of myself as a trailblazer. So what if I’m different than everyone I’m working with? I love my life, I love my job, and I adore my family. At home I’m mama and wife: chief tickler and bath-giver, and head-scratcher extraordinaire. At work, I’m an intern: order-writer, scut-monkey, shaker of hands and caffeine queen. For now at least, I’m a lone traveler.

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Frog Song

I’ve been working on this poem for a while, since the beginning of the summer actually. We had just moved back north, and I was lying in bed with the windows opening listening to the chirps and trills of the tree frogs. It is a sound from childhood I had forgotten about, and I imagined these tiny frogs bellowing their love songs into the early summer air.

Frog-Song
Over the fan I hear the chirping of a tree-frog,
newly emerged from his bath
of slime and jelly.
Balanced on his toes in a formal posture,
all three chambers of his heart trembling with desire
he sings: I am a man.
I am a man among boys,
my legs are hard with muscle
and my skin is smooth and damp.
I command this tree for only you.
I can fill your belly and keep you warm
in our cool summer nights.
I am a man.

Beside me, you are already asleep
but you smile in recognition
just the same.

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Compassion

It’s been a bad night. I’m on the night float service which means I cover the general medicine teams from 5:30pm- 7:30am. Tonight when getting my sign-out, one of my co-interns warned about their new admission. He was “sick” my coworker said, meaning not just the kind of sick that lands you in the hospital, but the kind of sick that makes your heart beat a little faster every-time the pager goes off because you just know that things are going to get worse before they got better. This patient, Mr A, had an infected joint and was septic from it, causing his blood pressure to be low. He had gotten a lot of IV fluids to try to raise his BP which worked nicely, he was getting antibiotics, and the surgeons were planning to take him to the OR tonight to wash out the infection. I stopped by to see him soon after coming in and he looked okay, better than I thought he was going to, and I felt like things were moving in the right direction.

About an hour later I got a call that he was having a hard time breathing, so I hustled over to his room, where I found him working hard to catch his breath and with decreased oxygen levels. Mr A had a DNR order in place, meaning that if his heart were to stop or if he were to have extreme difficulty breathing, he would not want to be resuscitated. He had discussed this with his family, and he understood that his condition was quite serious and there was a chance he could die. When I came to his room, we increased his oxygen and gave him a breathing treatment. We also gave him medicine to get rid of some of the fluid from his lungs, a consequence of all the fluids he got to maintain his BP. He was agitated, panicking because he couldn’t breathe well. “I’m dying”, he said, “I’m going to die”. His nurse and I reassured him, “we’re right here, you’re doing okay”, we said, holding his hand and encouraging him to take nice deep breaths. His oxygen levels kept dropping. And then I realized he wasn’t fighting anymore, that his eyes were open and staring at the ceiling.

“Mr A”, I bellowed into his ear, “Mr A, look over here at me”. Nothing. My interior panic alarm went off. I asked the nurse to call my senior resident. The nurses and I looked at each other, silently asking what we could do. With his DNR order in place, there wasn’t much left. I felt for a pulse in his wrist and couldn’t find one. I went to his other side, where there was no pulse. I felt in his groin for a pulse, and found nothing on either side. His heart was still beating on the monitor, but not strong enough to pump any blood. “Well”, I said to the nurses, “can anyone think of something we haven’t done?” We all agreed that without formal CPR or intubation, we had done all we could. I went to call his wife to let her know that things weren’t going well, to give her a warning shot for the inevitable final phone call. I returned to the room, where we stood, silently, while this man’s oxygen levels decreased, and his heart rate decreased. His nurse held his hand and stroked his hair, and told him I had called his wife, and she was praying for him and sending her love. He never responded, he never moved again. Thirty-five minutes after the nurse first called me, he died. I called his wife and told her that her husband had just died; predictably, she completely fell apart. I told her how sorry I was for her loss, and felt not for the first time how inadequate those words really are. But what else is there to say?

This story is somehow about compassion. Mr A died quickly, relatively peacefully, with a kind nurse holding his hand and stroking his forehead. Such a small act of kindness, to really attend to a dying patient, to comfort and care for him even when he can’t respond to your attention. And his wife, who came to see his body, said he had been ill for some time, and that she was glad he didn’t have a lingering death. She was grateful for that. And me, after I hid in my call room and cried a little bit, and called my husband to tell him I love him, had to attend to a host of pager calls; fevers, nausea, rapid heart rates, and the problems of the living. The nurses rallied around me, telling me how sorry they were that my patient died, asking how the family was, asking how I was doing. That empathy, maybe undeserved but badly needed, was unexpected and humbling. Death touches us all, and while I could never grieve as much as his family, you can’t watch a man die and be unmoved. At times like this, what else is left but compassion?

For Mama Says Om.

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Geranium

When the geranium died
its leaves shrunk in on
themselves. The last drops of
moisture extracted, they faded
to ugly dry scabs, sloughed from
the stem. Limbs amputated, fallen
hands open on the dirt.

The stems gave up later.
Green skin became paper thin,
peeling in ribbons of brown.
The vessels in the core released
their liquids, thick black gore
filling the center. Despite their
rot, they remained standing, their
home abandoned, their
heart neglected.

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Geography

 NaPoWriMo, Day #5.

This poem is a bit of fluff, but kind of fun (hopefully) and appropriate since it was 80 degrees here yesterday, while my parents got 10 inches of snow. It has occurred to me that I might add a NaPoWriMo category for these posts so they can be easily found in the future. Of course, I could also look at the date and just assume everything in April belongs to that category.

“Geography”

How curious the difference is
between the north and south!
Here in the southern climes we’re freed
from winter’s frozen mouth

in March or April; while the north
is gripped with ice and sleet,
we’re barbecuing hamburgers
and wearing our bare feet.

But when the summer’s furnace glows
and melts the strongest men,
oh how I wish I were up north
and freezing cold again!

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new year’s eve

¬†It has gotten hard already to write a poem each day, at least a poem that is worth reading. I may need to start doing revisions as my daily poem, which I think counts. There are just some that need to be changed already. I’m not happy with this one as is, but it’s a jumping off point. Comments are always welcome!

“New Year’s Eve”

The last breath of December exhaled
us into the streets,
but the unfamiliar cold drove us back
into the restaurant.
We ate pad thai and drank
expensive red wine, more
for the indulgence
than the taste.

Our shadows cloudy
white and clustered about our
mouths, we wandered the city;
strangers spilling into our
path, laughing at their private jokes.
Hands clutched we found our
own laughter.

In the hotel room, our
pajamas empty and waiting,
we watched the ball drop and
grinned foolishly. With faces
pressed close we made our plans;
the secret is only love.

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