Ms. B gently asked me if I could cut her omelet into bite-size pieces. I gingerly handled the plastic knife and sliced into the delicate hospital-made omelet. I made three expert pieces, straight-walled and contained. Bacon bits spilled out of the first one, but it was an edge piece. It’s not my fault. The other two pieces held up nicely, the glossy spinach densely packed in between the warm folds of egg. I admired my handiwork. The J.D. in me began to romanticize: maybe I was meant to be a surgeon after all. But Dr. Cox interrupted. “Bite-size, Sami.” I looked at the plate. My resident was right. I eat like a giraffe. Most others don’t. Ms. B laughed as I cut the continent-sized pieces into thirds and turned her omelet into scrambled eggs, which she explicitly did not order.
The next day, she was set for discharge. Her transportation was due at 4 pm. It was 2 pm now. We had rounded earlier in the morning and finalized her paperwork, prescriptions, and orders. I wanted to catch her one more time.
Ms. B lives with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a disease process I know next to nothing about and hadn’t expected to encounter. Our conversations were always so pendulous. One minute she’d be laughing at her circumstances. The very next, she’d abruptly start to cry. I had to remember to place the tissue box near her left hand, the only one she could move to her eyes. Her strength was nearly gone.
That afternoon, in between surgical cases, I joined her at bedside. She asked me where I was from. Chicago. She asked me how close to the hospital I lived. Down the street and to the left. She recognized the neighborhood and shared a fond memory of a self-obsessed boy she had met in the early 1960s who tried to impress her by revving his pastel pink car up and down the main road. In between giggles, she told me about the obscenities she yelled at him. It was the most I had seen her laugh so far.
She asked me about my career plans, my dreams. I want to be an astronaut. Always have. I want to be a surgeon, too, don’t worry, I quickly responded to her incredulous look. She asked me why. Because of the great unknown. Because there is so much left to discover and explore.
A whole minute passed silently by. She extended her right hand, her weaker hand, and I held it. She began to cry. The great unknown. She said she was scared. Scared of how her disease would progress, scared of who would be by her side and what else she would have to lose. I told her that my heroes are people like Neil Armstrong, Ed White, Gene Kranz — pioneers of the space race, people who bravely took us deeper into the darkness. I thought of her as a pioneer, too, bravely facing the unknown and unexpected changes of her disease. That makes her my hero, too, I told her. We talked for another half hour. By the grace of God, my pager stayed silent.
Ms. B is fiercely independent. She refused multiple interventions during her hospitalization because she wanted to remain as self-dependent as she could. But she allowed me to re-bend her bendy straws, reposition her phone and remote, and cut her omelet for her. She saw humanity in me, she said, when I brought my misshapen omelet chunks to her mouth. That’s the word she used. She was embarrassed for allowing herself to depend on someone, and asked me in all seriousness not to lose my humanity — there goes that word again. I’m not sure what I said next. I was so flustered by the weight of her words that I stuttered and stammered my way into a dead silence and looked down.
She motioned for me to lift the head of her bed. I gave her a hug, thanked her for reminding me why I chose medicine, and wished her good luck and that I hope to see her again just as long as it isn’t in a hospital. She was back to giggling. I promised I would write about her to reflect on the lessons she taught me and to immortalize this experience out of the many unknowns left to come. She squeezed my hand. Her disease was progressing fast. I knew what the squeeze meant. I left the room and locked eyes with her nurse. We shook heads in that I-hate-ALS kind of way. He knew, too.