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Medical Humanities


Pooja Srikanth
Published June 7, 2020

I struggled to keep my needle straight as I threaded it through the edge of a forehead laceration. The skin trembled as the woman I was caring for cried quietly, shoulders gently quaking under the blue towel I’d laid over her. I finished the knot and set my instruments down for a moment. 

“I’m so sorry if I’m hurting you. Do you need more of the numbing medication?”

“No, no, it doesn’t hurt…” She trailed off and a fresh wave of tears streaked down her face, rivulets finding their way through the constellation of wrinkles on her cheeks. “I’m not in pain.”

I laid a hand on her shoulder for a moment, taking care to avoid the rigid plastic of the cervical collar around her neck. “You can tell me about it, if you want.”

She took a shuddering sigh and looked at me, her eyes sharp despite the pain medication flowing through her veins. “I left the hospital today. Just this morning. My daughter picked me up and took me home. And now, just like that, I’m stuck here again.” 

As I continued to suture, Ms. Maxwell revealed the full story. She’d been admitted to a nearby hospital about a week ago for heart failure exacerbation. She lived alone, and she had to call an ambulance when it started to feel like she was drowning whenever she lay down. A few days of diuretics, some prescription refills, and a visit or two with a social worker, and she was declared ready for discharge. After her daughter dropped her off at home, she decided to drive to the grocery store and pick up dinner. 

“I even got myself a beautiful bouquet of flowers, as a little present.” For the first time, her lips curved upward in a small smile. “Carnations, and roses, and big yellow sunflowers.” 

As she made the turn out of the parking lot, another car rear-ended her and rammed her car straight into a lamp post. 

In the emergency department, she was found to have a broken femur, several cracked ribs, a fracture through a cervical vertebra, and a nasty cut across the forehead. Her car was totaled, towed off to some mystery impound. 

“My groceries went absolutely everywhere. The milk spilled. The tomatoes got crushed. And my flowers–” Her voice cut off, broken by a quiet sob through her chest, before she continued in a near-whisper. “They were ruined. Torn up and everything. They were so beautiful, and then…” She sighed and closed her eyes, like she was imagining the scene in her mind. “There were petals all over the seats and the dashboard and the carpet.”

I had long since finished my suturing work as I listened to her. Of all the misfortune this woman had experienced today, what upset her the most in that moment was not the loss of her car, or her broken bones, or even the potential cost of a second hospital visit. She could only remember her bouquet of beautiful flowers, what they had meant for her and how she had lost them. I thought about those flowers for the rest of my shift in the ER, and during my drive home. They were on my mind as I pulled into my driveway and noticed the patch of wild sunflowers that had slowly taken over the empty lot next door. 

I sat in the car for a moment as an idea took shape in my mind. Then I ran inside and grabbed a pair of shears from the kitchen. I gingerly walked through the briar, picking out the blooms with the brightest florets. I snipped away the wilted leaves. The junk drawer in the kitchen produced some twine and a piece of ribbon. Altogether, I was able to fashion a somewhat presentable bunch to give to Ms. Maxwell. 

She was still awake when I knocked on her door. She lay in the hospital bed, tucked under the sanitized white sheets, staring up at the fluorescent bulbs in the sanitized white ceiling. I held the flowers in front of me and she took them without a word. I felt almost sheepish. It didn’t feel like much of a consolation. The little bouquet wouldn’t solve any of the larger problems waiting for her in the coming days. They wouldn’t heal her spine. They wouldn’t fix her car, or take her home. 

She looked at them for a moment, then leaned close and inhaled, breathing in their scent. Exhaling slowly, she reached out and clasped my hand tightly in hers. 

“Thank you. They’re so beautiful.” Her voice shook slightly, weathered by age and suffused with emotion. “So beautiful.”

I helped Ms. Maxwell put them in a makeshift vase – a white Styrofoam cup – and set them on the bedside table. As I turned to leave, I looked back at her. Her head was turned away from me, eyes fixed on the flowers. Their little fringed faces would droop over the hours and probably get thrown away in a day or two by the janitorial staff. The scent would fade over time. But for now, they stood next to her bed, their bright yellow petals shining a little light in the dark night. 

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