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Medical Humanities

Dr. G

Submitted by Kelly Chen

Published October 5, 2019

Saturdays were spent at a long-term care facility for veterans. The building looked like it could have been shipped and assembled from a box – it was all right angles with no architectural flourishes. Primed for function over flair. The facility was split into six different wards based on medical need. Ward A residents suffered from dementia and were wander-risks. All exits and entrances were double-locked and gated in case a veteran left unaccompanied, forgot his identity, and lost his way back. Ward E was for residents with both psychiatric and medical complications. Ward G was for veterans who were in hospice care. It was not unusual for veterans to sleep most of the day away, only venturing out of their rooms to watch TV and have meals. 

I met Dr. G one weekend in May while on a volunteering shift. Assuming he was one of the staff, I turned to introduce myself. He breezed through the sea of veterans in wheelchairs, shaking my hand with his firm grasp. He suggested we go into the garden. 

Once outside, the artificial white light bulbs brightened into warm yellow sun. Rigorously sterilized walls and floors fell to open space, orderly furniture replaced with potted sunflowers and wild tomato vines. “This place is just a glorified nursing home,” he chuckled, and I laughed. Such a humorous acceptance of the truth, yet sad admittance of reality. He would know – Dr. G had been living in Ward E for three years.

Over the next year, I received a condensed account of Dr. G’s life. He is a 64 year-old man with wispy white hair and sea blue eyes. As a young man he served in the US Navy during the Vietnam War, specializing in treating sailors with venereal disease. He told his war stories like a grandfather would. I listened with wide eyes as he divulged what it was like to be battered about in the ocean and vomit into the waves, or recounted the outbreak of periodontal infections on board after the men had run out of toothpaste. Upon his return to the United States, he started a private practice and saw patients for over thirty years. Lack of family and worsening health led him to the veterans’ care facility, where he always felt a bit out of place.

Dr. G never complained – after all, he noted, he was one of the few veterans living in the facility who was still able to walk, and he still had his wits about him. Curious as I was, I never inquired about his diagnosis. I searched for any physical sign of disease – a yellowing of the eyes, or swelling of the feet, for instance—but his body was marred by none. I understood that if he wanted to share his diagnosis with me, then he would do so in his own time.

I was only able to visit him on a few more occasions before summer stormed in. It whisked me into twelve- hour work days in the laboratory, laboring over biology experiments, and analyzing data. Thirty minutes were spared for dinner. Then it was biking back to lab, except this time to climb up the three flights of stairs to the empty conference room, unload a backpack of MCAT workbooks and practice exams, and gather any remaining energy reserves to power through the forty pages of material to stay on track with my study-schedule. The next four hours were spent switching between passages of biochemistry, physics, psychology, and critical reasoning. My brain rammed repeatedly into the wall built by ever-evasive sleep, each wakeful night laying another brick, each exasperated thought, the caulking around them. Nerves and pressure clouded my perspective, and for those two months nothing mattered except work and tests.

When I returned to school in the Fall, I finally paid the veterans another visit. I did not see Dr. G. I imagined he might be napping in his room, or out on an excursion. I made the rounds to the other veterans. Ed, who didn’t have his dentures in, smiled and offered me a York peppermint patty. Corwin asked me if I wanted to hear about the time he got arrested. Frank told me the story of the pinup girl tattooed on his arm, again. Near the end of the visit, one of the nurses wheeled out another veteran to the common living area. He held a thin purple booklet, his slender fingers keeping page. This gentleman was unable to hold up the weight of his own head, such that his chin tilted towards his chest, and I could not see his face. I had to crouch and look up to make eye contact and, when I did, my heart sobered. I could not believe it was him.

One of the nurses divulged Dr. G’s worsening Parkinson’s dementia. A cruel combination of Parkinson’s disease and dementia, Parkinson’s dementia burdens its victims with the motor deficits of Parkinson’s and the mental deterioration of Alzheimer’s. That afternoon we flipped through his purple booklet. I read to him about using floss picks instead of spooled floss, a trick that would come in handy as he gradually lost the agility of his fingers, and about the transition to a liquid diet, as it would eventually become impossible for him to chew and swallow. When it was time to leave, he strained his sea blue eyes down towards me. He asked, “What t-time does the boat leave?”

*Note: the names in this piece have been changed to maintain confidentiality

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