She paced protectively beside the hospital bed and its current patient, her grown son, the mother lioness protecting her vulnerable cub. In her hand, she gripped a small notepad, a pen snugly tucked into the coiled-wire binding. Her worried eyes peered through her small rectangular frames, suspiciously watching my arrival. Without blinking, she tucked her short gray bob behind her ears, readying their acuity to my words.
She was the mother of a son infected with HIV.
I focused on the patient. He was my age, in his early forties, with mussed up reddish-blond hair. His face wore the fatigue and ravages of his illness. His temples were sunken-in, his bluish eyes dull, his teeth fragile. Although he gave an effort to smile, his sagging skin weighed down the corners of his mouth. His body was tucked and bundled to his chin with several hospital blankets. To say that he was tired-appearing would have been an understatement.
While introducing myself, I approached him with my outstretched hand. After we shook, I turned to his mother and repeated myself. She took my hand warmly. After introductions, she opened up her notepad and asked me to spell my name, writing it on a fresh clean sheet near the pad's end. I could see most of the previous pages, worn and tattered, were filled with her busywork.
"Well, John," I said, leaning back into the room's counter, "what brought you here today that I can help you with?"
Without hesitating, John's mother began to talk. "Mother," John interrupted her, "I can tell the doctor my problems on my own." I hoped that she wouldn't take his abruptness personally, instead recognizing his attempts to cling to his independence. She quickly silenced herself, slightly embarrassed, as John began to share his story with me.
In the mid-90s, John discovered he was infected with HIV. Through his diligent compliance of lifestyle and medication, he maintained an almost non-existent viral load. He worked-out, he ate well, he enjoyed life to the fullest. Unfortunately, in the past few years, his body and illness became resistant to his previous successful approach and, suddenly, he was dealing with the ravages of advancing HIV. Weight-loss, skin issues, opportunistic infections--each and every new problem was another lost battle in his war. After his most recent diagnosis of HIV-associated lymphoma, he moved back in with his mother and began chemotherapy. He was struggling immensely from both the effects of chemotherapy and his disease.
"Look, Doc," he said, unwrapping his blankets and lifting up his gown to reveal a swollen abdomen and legs, multiple tiny, kinked, bluish-veins spotting his transparent skin, "I have so much edema now that I rely on pain medication to help with the discomfort." His predicament looked painful. In fact, this uncontrolled and worsening swelling had been the purpose of his ER visit.
We talked a little longer about his life, his illness, and his recent setbacks. And through this conversation, I noticed John's mother slowly sadden and withdraw to the chair in the corner of the room. My heart went out to her--I couldn't imagine her pain, having to watch one of her children slowly dwindle from this sometimes devastating and unforgiving illness. Her anguished face, just moments before alert, now wore a look of tattered defeat.
"John," I assured him, "let me finish my physical exam and then I will order up some medications to make you comfortable." His mother wrote in her notebook as I talked.
I continued with my examination, after closely inspecting his protuding abdomen and edematous legs. His exam was difficult. He seemed to have significant findings with every system of his body, despite his vital signs begin stable.
Finally, I asked John to sit up so that I could auscultate his lungs from a posterior approach. "Can you help me, doc?" he asked, holding out his right arm to me. "Sure, John," I answered, grabbing his hand with my right hand and placing my left on his shoulder.
And that's when it hit me. Hard. Just how terrible John's predicament was. Don't get me wrong, I fully understood just how much suffering he had been dealing with recently as his body seemed to succumb to his setbacks, but touching his right shoulder had made me catch my breath.
Under the grip of my left hand, while coaxing John's worn body to sit up, the bareness and emaciation of his right shoulder astounded me. He had absolutely no bulk to it--no muscle, no fat, no cushiony subcutaneous tissue that one typically has to their shoulder contour. Nothing. All I could feel was bone. His clavicle, his humeral head, and his shoulder blade all right there. It was remarkably sad. I shifted my fingers in a futile attempt to palpate any "meat" on his bones. There was none.
After successfully sitting John up, with his mother's help on his other side, I shifted his gown off his shoulder while listening to his lungs. My eyes fixated on his shoulder's thin, transparent skin barely accomodating the stretching from his protruding bones. I simply couldn't quit looking at the fragile shoulder, a dichotomy to John's enlarged, padded ascitic legs and abdomen. What a damn, awful disease.
I left John's room and ordered his work-up and medications. Soon after, he was much more comfortable.
A few minutes later, the secretary called me. "Dr. Jim," she said, "the mother of Room 28 is waiting at the nurses' station to talk to you." I finished with a chart and walked the hallway, finding the mother leaning into the station counter, flipping through her notepad. "Hello, maam," I said, approaching her, "I understand you wanted to talk to me?"
She looked up from her notepad, closing it, while her eyes settled on mine. "Yes, doctor, I do." She paused before continuing. "I just want to thank you for your kindness to John. I know you are just doing your job, per se, but there was something more from you, something I can't put a finger on, that made us both feel very good." She choked up as she spoke.
I grabbed her hands, one of which still held her precious notepad, and thanked her for her kind words. "My heart goes out to both of you," I continued, watching her tears progress to sobs, "what an awful disease for anybody to endure." She took her eyes from mine and looked at her feet. I thought of what to say next, the words coming quite easy. "John is so lucky and blessed to have a mother like you. You opened your home, you take notes, you accompany him to all of his appointments. We should all be so lucky." I paused before finishing. "And loved."
She looked at me again, her act of the protective mother lioness long-abandoned. "Thank you," she repeated before turning and walking back towards John's room.
We admitted John for further care.
Although I pride myself on my composure through all of the emergency department's chaos, I am only human and sometimes cannot shake a patient's affect on me. John was one such patient. It must have visibly shown, too, since several of my coworkers asked me if I was okay. "No," I answered honestly, "but I will be."
At the end of the day, we are all human. We are all in this world together. We are all united by the common threads of emotions. We are all prone to the extremes of happiness and sadness and everything between. We are all in need of compassion and kindness and love.
Especially, though, those who are suffering. And John was suffering. My greatest hope for John is that he may find much love, compassion, and kindness on his continued life journey.
There is no human being who deserves anything less.
As always, big thanks for reading.