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Medical Humanities

A Little Bird Remembers

Eliza Uster
January 15, 2019

I met her in September on the first day of my inpatient medicine month. She was sitting up in bed surrounded by visitors, silver hair wrapped in a bun, skin pulled tight over too-sharp cheekbones, her dark, all-seeing eyes fixed on me as they shone from the hollows of her face.

As a brand new third year medical student, I was nervous. Nervous to disturb her, to bother her with endless questions, to touch her frail, cancer-invaded body. But then she smiled at me, a smile that radiated such warmth and goodness that I found my footing and walked in to introduce myself to her and her family. I told her I’d be the medical student looking after, and that unfortunately, I’d probably be the one to wake her up the next morning.

She chuckled. “It’s a date!”

And with those words, a most unlikely friendship began. I saw her three times a day. In the mornings, as I fumbled my way through her physical exam, we’d try to guess what kind of over-the-top Starbucks drink her daughter-in-law would be bringing her later, and if her MRI would actually happen that day. On rounds, she’d wink at me from behind my attending as I presented her case and we discussed our plan. The evenings were my favorite, though.

At the end of the day after I’d said goodbye to my residents, I’d knock on her door, take her hand, and we would talk. We talked about how she was working on teaching her granddaughter how to bake because “a person should know their family’s recipes.” About our shared unyielding love for Thomas Sweet’s Ice Cream (coffee-oreo for me, strawberry for her). We talked about what it was like to go to the doctor for low blood pressure only to quickly find out that cancer had murderously encircled itself around most of your organs. We talked about the sweet love story of her 50-year marriage, and the relief that accompanied the heartbreak of her husband’s passing after a cruel battle with Alzheimer’s. Sometimes, on the hard days, we didn’t talk at all.

“I just can’t do it today,” she’d say. And we’d sit quietly and watch Law&Order as the machines beeped and whirred around us.

Over the course of our month together, it became clear that she would not leave the hospital and that her fight was nearing its end.

At the close of my last day of the rotation, I knocked on her door with a lump in my throat. I didn’t know what to say. I was leaving, and she was not. I felt defeated.

I sat down next to her and took her cool, fragile hand in mine for the last time.

“Today’s my last day,” I whispered.

And she smiled the same warm smile, this time with sad eyes. I told her that seeing her was the best part of my day and that she’d taught me more in a month than I’d learned in all my years of school.

She taught me the importance of keeping my word. The night before her spine surgery, she’d confessed that she was nervous. She’d never had surgery before and was terrified that she wouldn’t wake up. I told her that I would come find her in recovery, to keep our daily ritual going, and tell her all about what happened while she was sleeping. The next day I went to find her in the SICU. She lay there, bandaged, fading in and out of consciousness, a grimace stretched across her face. Finally, she awoke, dazed beneath a cloud of fentanyl, but when her swimming eyes found mine she softened. Steadied. Smiled.
“You really came.”

She’d taught me that everything in medicine, even with the most noble intentions, comes with a cost. With each new needle stick for the suddenly urgent stat labs, new bruises bloomed beneath her paper-thin skin. The every-four-hour vitals, meant to keep steady watch on her weary heart, kept her from peaceful sleep. A complicated, multi-level spinal surgery that promised to improve her quality of life now left her in blinding pain; her fingertips were black and dying from the life-saving pressors we’d used to keep her blood moving during the operation.

“You were like a little bird,” she said, “you always landed right when I needed you. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

I kissed her hand and told her that I would never forget her. She smiled again and said, “friends like us, we’ll meet again. Goodbye baby girl.”

I walked out of her room and as the tears spilled over, I thought about how what I knew of as medicine, the raw, awesome power of science aimed toward saving lives, had failed her. We had failed to stop the angry onslaught of her cancer. We had failed to get her home to the familiarity of her own bed. And we could not save her. But in those quiet evenings, when I sat holding my new friend’s hand and talked about the minutiae of life amidst a background of crime television, maybe I’d helped heal her. Maybe I’d been able to give back some small bit of the comfort she’d long been missing. Though I was powerless to do anything other than bear witness to her broken body, maybe I was able to give a little bit of peace to her soul. Because at the very end, when the science falls away, all we have are hands to hold and ears to listen. I can think of no greater honor.
She passed a week later, surrounded by her friends and family. Heartbroken, I set out that evening to celebrate my friend’s life in the best way I knew how: with a scoop of strawberry ice cream. Okay, two scoops.

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