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Editor's Comments on 'The Boss'

As a new intern, I am no stranger to the harried pace of the day. My pager goes off, my heart jumps to my throat, and I start making new check boxes on my To-Do list. But even in the busy thrum of the hospital, I find myself frequently arrested by the poignancy of the stories surrounding us: they are windows through which I can peek and see my patient’s outside the hospital, without a hospital gown, living life as mechanic, or dancer, or outdoors enthusiast. To know that an avid golfer is losing the strength in his hands, or to hear how a gardener is spending most the summer being readmitted to the hospital adds the texture by which I can better feel the loss of one’s self in disease.

In O’Brien’s “The Boss,” we have such a story about the changing roles that disease can impose upon us. Part of the story’s power is derived from its proximity to its audience—it is a story about a clinician who becomes the patient; a man who had been a mentor becoming the one who needs aid and support. The crux of the suffering is made clear when the patient tells O’Brien “how much he loves being a doctor and a teacher and how it isn’t fair that he has to give those things up so soon.” But the changing of roles goes both ways as O’Brien is now the caretaker—throughout the story the sense of struggle and the sense of surreal that accompanies the inversion of that relationship becomes clear: “No one ever prepares you in medical school to have to care for the man who has inspired you most as a physician.” And yet this moment, with its touching weave of emotions as O’Brien comes to grips with caring for her mentor, is still situated within the chaos of the hospital. There are no easy answers, and it is a feeling that we all know too well: there is no time for full catharsis. At the end of the story there is only time for O’Brien to collect herself and wipe the mascara from her face, before returning to a pager going off. She must pivot to her remaining To-Dos. And with her, the audience is also forced to pivot back to the remaining tasks of the day.

Stephen Raithel