During the last few weeks on surgery, I’ve been thrown into an unfamiliar world where sterility is key, speed is essential, and doing anything remotely wrong will get you yelled at. Because of the high volume of patients we see and the complex surgeries that need to be done in addition to patient care, we often see 15-20 patients around the hospital in less than one hour. That’s about 3 minutes per patient including transition time to walk from one hospital floor to another. As you can imagine this offers little time to ask more than “have you had a bowel movement?” or “how’s your pain?” before we’re off to the next room.
While this has been hard for me because I’m all about those patient narratives, I’ve been following the same man for the last week and have realized what true love is.
Every morning for the last 6 days, I’ve walked into his room to pre-round (check on the patients I’m following before seeing them again with the entire team) around 5 am. The man mentioned above is in his 70s has metastatic cancer, and without violating any patient privacy, I’ll just say that he’s developed some complications from being in the hospital that are making him stay for the foreseeable future.
We don’t speak the same language and aside from asking him if his cough has gotten better or if he’s pooped (I mostly use hand gestures to get my point across with him), there’s not much I can elicit besides doing a physical exam.
While his vitals and labs keep fluctuating, the only consistent thing with him is that every morning at 5 am his wife is there. During the first few days, I would wake both her and her husband up when I came in, but for the last couple of mornings she’s been wide awake, showered, and reading the newspaper when I come in the room.
The patient is well groomed, covered neatly in blankets, and aside from his sputum-producing cough, looks healthy. This is deceiving though because this man is actually very ill, and in fact, we have other patients on the service with similar diseases that are disheveled and disoriented. His wife, meticulously dressed minus the bags that have formed under her eyes from restless hospital life, stands beside me as I do the exam and answers my questions in broken English. If I pull up his gown to examine his abdomen, she tucks it back in place afterwards, her hands moving gently so as to not hurt him. I’ve never gotten the impression that she’s trying to be controlling. Because she can’t do much medically for her husband, I’ve come to understand that she expresses her love through taking care of him.
She bathes him and helps him to and from the bathroom. She tucks him in at night and sleeps in the chair beside him so he can wake her if he needs anything. She holds his arm and helps him walk around the hospital floor so that he can heal faster. He ambulates at a snail’s pace, and yet there she is beside him, helping him to take baby steps and flagging down nurses to find out when he can eat food.
She’s his biggest advocate and despite the fact that there’s no end in sight, she continues to do this every day. Every morning she’s up before 5 am and every night she goes to sleep in the lumpy chair beside his bed.
She’s his rock and in some ways I think he’s her’s too. He depends on her but isn’t dependent. He’s her husband and my impression is that she intends to do her best to help him through this because that’s what you do. When you’re in love with someone, you’re there. No matter what. We think of love as being about flowers and love letters, but I think it’s being willing to cherish someone and to support them during their toughest moments. I’ve been fortunate enough to know love and can empathize with their relationship, but I also think that that this kind of love extends beyond the romantic.
I could just as easily see a parent doing this for a child or a sister for her brother. In fact I’ve fortunately encountered numerous dynamics like these in the hospital. We often think about the patients without considering the experiences their loved ones have as a result of their illnesses. I think these instances are perfect examples of what it means as human beings to truly love others. Hospitals can be depressing places where you see the worst that life has to offer, but if you open your eyes, you can also see the triumphs of humanity in the form of pure, selfless love. Moments like these make getting in and leaving work without seeing the sun worth it. They’re why I got into medicine.
That’s something to be thankful for.