Embrace

After what felt like a relatively good day in OBGYN clinic — no new cancer diagnoses, no particularly life-threatening pathologies — I followed my attending to the women’s hospital entrance, the elevators, and to the eleventh floor. The door stood slightly ajar as though the patient expected us to round this late in the day. We peeked inside.

She was bundled neatly under two or three off-white linens that did a rather good job of concealing the tangle of wires and lines that hung from her arms. Her husband sat at her bedside. He bore a striking resemblance to an actor whose name was on the tip of my tongue.

The attending and the patient exchanged niceties and spoke with euphemisms about her lengthy hospital stay. She was ready to go home, she said, as she peered outside the window into the humid summer sky. Her family had organized a reunion in Pennsylvania but she resigned herself to many more days in her hospital bed. She was adamant about fighting.

But despite her previous operations and her mettle as she endured session after session of chemotherapy, the cancer had seeded and taken over her abdomen. Her chest cavity was at risk and the cancer was growing rapidly, furiously, relayed the attending in more serious terms now.

She knew this already. Seemingly unfazed, she turned to her husband as he stood from his chair and paced the margin of space between her bed and the wall. He wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone in the room. She turned back to us and reiterated her wish to fight. Surgery? She’ll do it. Chemotherapy? Radiation? Give me all of it, she gestured.

My attending, now standing where the husband had been sitting, held the patient’s hand, gave it a squeeze, and let it drag along the side of the bed longingly as we walked away. As if to suggest that we were still holding on, as if to say we weren’t going anywhere. As if to undo the injustice of the words we weren’t saying, the reality she wasn’t hearing.

The white coats walked back down the hallway toward the elevator, my attending’s skin flushed the entire way. Just as we turned the corner, we heard a shuffle and a call. The patient’s husband caught up to us, finally made eye contact, and asked us if she had a chance. George Clooney — that’s who he looked like. A sad George Clooney. The more distracted I was, the less likely my emotion would show.

The attending did her best to explain the merciless prognosis. She had a few weeks left to live, maybe four at the most. No amount of surgery or adjuvant therapy would do her any good. Ovarian cancer, gratuitously called the silent killer for a reason, spins its web right about now. She needed to be with her family.

He shifted his glance and then his weight as though to brace himself for a fall. He hid his tears well, and so did the attending. He nodded his understanding and walked back to the room. The door was now closed.

But before we could turn back to the elevator again, a rush of emotion spilled over the attending and she charged back to the room. She knocked, let herself in, and hugged the patient. In total silence, the attending melted into the bed.

The two, now weeping, had gotten to now each other very well over the past six or so months. Cancer works quickly; the intimacy of a relationship between patient and provider is oftentimes rushed in the face of such urgency. Steps are inevitably skipped.

George Clooney faced the window, his face reflected in the shadowy darkness of the blinds. He looked more like Alec Baldwin from this angle. Stay sharp! I thought to myself, and don’t give in.

The embrace had done its part: the two were now honest with each other and even more with themselves. There they sat, arm under arm, fielding answers to life’s more challenging questions about what it means to fight, how fresh the air could taste, how to put one’s affairs in order. The trip to Pennsylvania was suddenly looking more and more realistic. Alec Baldwin briskly inhaled and sat down. Very little else needed to be said.

We left the room for the final time. My attending, well over six feet and appreciated for her indefatigable enthusiasm and her authoritative demeanor, wiped her eyes with a tissue she had snatched from the room and blurted out, to herself more than to anyone else, that she hates her job.

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