Yesterday I explained why I'm writing about doctors and/or medical professionals. If you haven't done so already, you can read it here: http://http//beatriceblount.blogspot.com/2009/11/doctor-doctor-give-me-news.html
Well, today I want to just jot down a few of my favorite doctor stories. I know you probably have some of your own, and no doubt some of them top mine. But these are encounters that I have personally lived through, and so are meaningful to me.
Dr. Crook (haha, yes I know) has been part of the Nashville medical community for a number of years. He was an ears/nose/throat doctor, and I'm pretty sure he had to look up the nostrils of 85% of the Middle Tennessee population during the years of his practice. (Does anyone actually remember the correct title of such a doctor? I never do without looking, so I won't cheat by googling it.) Dr. Crook and his family were part of our church community when I was a child, and so it was a no-brainer that I would go to him for help with my throat's love affair with strep. After spending all their hard earned money on amoxicillin and other lovelies, my parents decided that perhaps I should have my entire throat removed to save us all the grief of my recurrent illness. The good doctor decided that I should have my tonsils out, and that this would help the issue.
At the age of eleven, I was nervous about undergoing anesthesia and the idea that I would be completely and totally unaware of my body and mind for a few hours. Most parents would calm such fears. My dad, who is often given to very strange parental practices, thought it would be funny to talk about Dr. Kevorkian. In fact, his last words to me as I rolled away on a squeaky gurney were to "run if you see the death doctor!". Despite his best attempt to give me a nervous breakdown, the surgery went well, and after eight gallons of apple juice, fourteen boxes of Popsicles, and and endless supply of Campbell's, I was ready to go back to school and life as normal.
Two weeks later, as my family prepared for Wednesday's evening church services, I tasted blood in my mouth. My throat was still a little sore, and I assumed that I had just eaten something too scratchy. I went to the bathroom, and stared at my eleven year old throat in the mirror. I didn't see anything, so went on with arguing with my sister as to why she should let me borrow her shirt with big bellsleeves (shudder). I soon had to return to the sink, however, and this time spat out a mouth full of blood. Still, there was nothing to be seen amiss in my mouth. Within an hour, my mom and I were the only ones at home, having decided that spewing blood from one's mouth is not the best way to spread holiday cheer. And within another hour, I couldn't move from the sink. The blood was pouring from my mouth like a fountain.
My mom got the car ready, supplied me with a large blue plastic cup, and helped me to the car. We drove through the mid-December air towards Southern Hills Hospital, where I had my surgery just two weeks prior. I was terrified, and had to open the station wagon's door at every stoplight to empty the blue cup. I have never, ever been so delighted to see a giant golden star as I was that night. For those of you who don't live in this area, Southern Hills has always placed a big star on their roof during the Christmas season. It was my beacon of hope that night, because I knew some type of help was near. I'm not a terribly 'open' person when it comes to talking about my real fears. If possible, I was even worse as a child. Somehow I managed, though it embarrassed me to no end, to ask my mom to pray for me. I was, very much, terrified.
We parked near the Emergency Room entrance, and I again spilled the contents of my cup on the ground. I've never thought til now that someone found those contents and probably spend the next week in fear that I had spread all manner of illness upon the streets of Nashville. At the time, I didn't care. I don't remember the lady that checked us in, but I do remember my mother's mutterings of frustration that as her daughter continuously poured blood from her insides, she had to sit and fill out her address and place of employment.
Suddenly, as you almost always do, I knew that I was going to be ill. I ran down the hall and found a large silver sink. I filled it with yet more blood and a number of blood clots. I then remember my mother running down the hallway yelling at the top of her lungs for a doctor, check-in lady be damned. And then, truly as mystical and smoke filled as on a movie, a lady wearing a horribly ornate Christmas sweater took me by the arm and led me to a room. She had a sweet face, lovely reassuring hands, and the timber of her voice was like an instant sedative. It could have been the blood loss, but I think she was one of those nurses that gives the profession such a good name.
The next thing I knew was that Dr. Crook showed up. As far as I know, he wasn't an E.R. doctor. But somehow he had found out that I was in the hospital, and he left the Christmas party he was attending to come and attend to me instead. A familiar face in a time of fear is indescribable. Between lovely Dr. Crook and the lovely nurse, I was given some numbing spray, a weird little spit sucker, and then asked to lie very still while they put an enormous metal instrument in my mouth, into my throat, and towards the blood clots that had yet to make their appearance in a large silver sink.
I don't know how long I was there, but I remember not wanting to leave. I wanted to stay and have the red sweater nurse to cluck her tongue and smooth my hair all night until I could disappear into the oblivion of sleep. But with instructions I don't remember, we were sent home.
Well, I've always held Dr. Crook and the unnamed nurse in high sentiment for their loving care of me that night, at age eleven, when I was pretty sure I was going to die. And their services would have been enough. But one day, just a few years ago, I was at Vanderbilt. I had some nodules on my thyroid, and though it is common enough, you still have to have them tested for cancerous cells. I was not amused. Needles in your neck are only slightly better than needles in your eye, and with the even remotest chance of cancer hanging on the microscope, there just really isn't a way to approach such a test with anything but dread. Austin and I were waiting on the cracked plastic chairs, he talking about our upcoming trip to Phoenix and trying to keep me from going totally insane and running from the hall while stripping off my clothes and pretending to be a rooster. Stress can get to you.
And then, a familiar voice came into the small room. Dr. Crook, now a friend of my spouse (life is odd, isn't it?) had heard that I would have this test. He came to sit with us, and to wait. He was calm, which should have calmed me. Instead it made me feel more stressed for feeling stressed. But he crossed his leg at the knee, smiled mildly at us, and talked until my name was called. He assured us it he would be there when we came out, and that it probably wouldn't take very long. I won't embarrass myself by telling you what happened in the next room. The doctor suggested that if I ever have to have such a test in the future, I should ask to be completely and totally knocked unconscious. But it was over, and Austin led his puffy-eyed wife back to the antiseptic covered waiting room. Dr. Crook, still calm and waiting, said nothing about my obviously red face. Instead he gave us a hug, said he was glad it was over, and gave us some reassuring statistics about thyroid nodules.
I was no longer his patient, he no longer my doctor. But he is always a doctor, and I think that might be what I so love about the friends I have that are doctors and nurses. Even when off the clock, they are never off duty. They have knowledge and experience, and they have the ability to bring peace to a troubled mind. Even when they can't bring peace, they bring their presence.
And now you love Dr. Crook as much as my family does.
Here's a nurse story for you:
My mom had a wickedly wretched and life-threatening brain aneurysm that ruptured in June of 2004. It should have killed her, and it was through a series of amazing people, from the brain surgeons to the cleaning lady, that brought her through the ordeal. Still, however, there were weeks and weeks of recovery, and it was during this time that our story begins.
My dad was almost always with my mom during visiting hours. Every once in a while he had to be somewhere, and would ask Austin and I to make sure that Mom's routine and medicines and favorite slippers were all seen to. Austin, Moira and I had dinner with Mom and watched her do some walking exercises. We helped her get into her pajamas, put on her favorite music, and attempted to make her brush her teeth (to no avail).
Before leaving, I changed Moira's diaper. And then I remembered that Mom wasn't yet capable of getting to the restroom by herself. She was walking, but still not unassisted and not at a normal pace. I asked my mom if she wanted me to help her to the restroom before she got in bed. She agreed it was probably a good idea, and so I helped her in and then shut the door. Moira and I played a puzzle, Austin watched the news, and a half hour passed. I called in to ask if she needed anything, to which my mother happily responded that she was just fine. Fifteen more minutes passed. I asked again and again if anything was wrong, and she laughed at me for being concerned. I didn't want to intrude on a grown woman's privacy, especially when there were very few things she could do without assistance. But after another fifteen minutes, I knew I had to do something. I laid on the floor and looked under the small dusty gap to where my mother sat. She was happily chattering something and swinging her legs back and forth with gusto. She was just sitting there, not wanting to get up and go to bed, and I had no idea what to do.
I called for a nurse, and hung my head while I told her that I couldn't get my mother out of the bathroom and that I didn't want to embarrass her. This woman, my mother, had through the years wiped my bottom and told me to stop the nonsense and get into bed before something bad happened....I had no intentions of doing the same with her. But I also needed her to get to bed and rest, because she wasn't well enough for me to leave without seeing her safely to her room. The nurse walked right in as I internally cringed and waited for my mom to throw a fit and then come out and yell at me. However, Amazing Magic Nurse came in and laughed with the patient about how she had successfully avoided her bedtime by a good hour, and wasn't she clever? The nurse somehow managed to help my mom with this very intimate act of BATHROOM GOING and yet did so with humor and respect that flowed through to the patient and the patient's discouraged daughter. They washed her hands, let her choose a lotion, and walked to the room.
Mom was smiling VERY cheekily, and even in her mental fog, I'm quite sure she was enjoying the stress she put me through. Moira, one year old and quite past her own bedtime, tucked her grandmother in to a bed with big silver rails. They smiled at each other, and I mentally clung to the nurse and her expert ways. I don't know that I have been able to describe how relieved I was that my mom would have such respectful care. It might be hard to imagine if you haven't been in a similar situation. But even when death is at the door, and all you care about is keeping life's breath inside a loved one's body, you still want their dignity to be maintained. You want their humanity addressed, but you want their spirit addressed as well. It is hard to do such a thing when you are changing the soiled linens of a parent, or convincing a grandparent that they aren't able to continue driving a vehicle. I'm not well-schooled in how to do it all with grace, and even humor. But the nurse that night was, and I am grateful that I got to see such a gift in action.
You knew it would show up, and I won't disappoint. A receptionist story!
There is an AWESOME clinic in Nashville called Siloam. They have top notch doctors and personnel, and they don't work from health insurance. They are supported by a number of incredible monetary saints, and work on a sliding scale to give you medical care that you can actually, seriously, afford. I've been when insurance sucks (often) and I have to get tests done that would rob my family of 6 months salary. It is a really, really nice office not only in feeling, but in its physical layout. This isn't a crappy nasty office where they don't clean the bathroom. It is one of the very nicest health offices I have ever been to, and many people are paying twenty dollars to be seen. It is AMAZING and if you ever have need of it, GO! Or, if you have resources, GIVE!
Anyways, there was a time when a lady who appeared to be homeless walked in the waiting room. I'm not saying she was shabby or didn't have a bath that day. It was obvious that she had been sleeping outside for some time, and wore all she owned on her back. Her hands were swollen and chapped, her nails yellow and caked with dirt. She walked to the front desk, received a genuinely kind greeting from the office worker, and put a very wilted dollar on the table. You might wonder what was to be done. I mean, of course you know somewhere in your brain that homeless women need a doctor as much as you do. But public protocol is awkward and often doesn't come out right, and the silent get silenced further. Amazingly, wonderfully, without any awkwardness or whispered questions, the woman was taken back to see a doctor. A dollar for her care, for her needs, for her dignity. The front office worker was the hero of the day in my little world. Sometimes we overlook those that help us get to the doctor, but they are important too. They make decisions that affect us, and we should speak up when they do something amazing. They don't have the degrees or the salary or the importance, and let's just say I know from experience that they often go home feeling like a pile of unimportant poo. So tell them they aren't. Even if they smile and wave it away, they will most likely hug themselves that night, remembering that somebody noticed.
So! Tired yet? Sorry...I can be wordy. One more? Ok then. Feel free to go grab a cuppa for the next one. I'll leave you to decide what goes in the cup.
My father-in-law, Dennis Cagle, fought a very short, fierce battle with pancreatic cancer just over two years ago. He lived in Phoenix, and we in Nashville. I didn't visit his doctors or nurses through the very brief treatment. They may have been wonderful. They may have been terrible. Other family members can answer those questions. I only know what happened at the end. One day, by the absolute and total grace of God (and I don't say that lightly) Austin and I felt very impressed that we should get to Phoenix the very next day. We had tickets for the following week, but suddenly were filled with itching urgency to make it happen sooner. Through extra cash given by friends, and airline points by the same, we did in fact land in the Valley of the Sun late the next morning.
When we landed, Austin switched on his phone to tell his sister that we had arrived safely. Instead, he had a number of messages from his family saying that his dad had taken that notorious turn that we dreaded. Chelsea was now waiting at the airport to whisk Austin to the hospital, no time to waste on collecting bags. Luckily, Dennis held on throughout the rest of that day. After settling my kids with friends, I was able to join those who loved Dennis at the hospital and spend a few hours smiling at the sweet things he said. He wasn't himself as I had known him, yet still himself in that way that just doesn't make sense unless you've been in that situation. And then, the very hard part. He was to be moved to hospice that night. The family broke for an hour to collect dinner, clean clothes, various papers, a few strong lattes and a big breath.
The hospice, it sounds weird to say, was amazing. I'd never had a family member in hospice before, and it is surreal and eerie and calm and unnerving. Dennis kept giving big smiles to whomever walked in the room, and the rest of us stared and talked and sat and stood and picked our fingernails. A nurse came in to ask Dennis if he wanted anything. He replied that he wanted some juice, but he knew he wasn't allowed to have any because of the sugar. The nurse conspiratorially informed this dying man that he could have all the juice he wanted. Dennis was so happy, and the nurse kept that orange juice coming! He (the nurse, I don't know his name) held the wide, foil capped cup up to Dennis' mouth and talked to him as if he wasn't lying literally in a death bed. And yet...the nurse wasn't ignoring the non-ignorable facts surrounding Dennis and his condition.
I don't know how doctors and surgeons and nurses do what they do. But I really, really don't understand how hospice workers do what they do. As a doctor, I can imagine that even on a really bad day you can try to focus on those you saved, those patients who would be able to see the next morning because you intervened. You feel sorry for those that didn't make it, but it is par for the course and a sad reality of life that death is the end...or maybe something like that. But hospice workers know that they are ushering bodies through their last hours, and even their last minutes of life. They know that nothing can be done to save the hurting families, nothing can keep the pain from entering the body and the room. So they give cups of concentrated orange juice, their time, and their sincerity. This is a respect that is startling, a type of love that is almost unbearable. These workers give what the family might not have left in them, or at least give the family time to walk into the hall, clench their fists so hard the nails make crescents on their palms, and then walk back in for another round of Life Sucks.
I was really, really honored that someone who didn't know him would treat my husband's father in this way. It didn't make the pain less, but it made it get stuck less in my throat on the way down.
So there's a few of my stories. As always, I don't know that I conveyed what I wanted. The stories are mine, so they are important inside my head and heart, and maybe they didn't make the full travel to the page with all their emotion and truth intact.
But for what it might be worth, I'm saying a big thank you for all those workers who do a job I could not do. It really is a gift, and even for those who don't believe in God, a spiritual gift at that. In my opinion, we overhonor those gifts that seem magical and mysterious. We are amazed at those who see angels (or we are scared of them, kind of depends on the person) and those who can correctly prophecy tomorrow's contents. I'm going to say something uninformed and not researched, something totally from my weepy little heart. Gifts of practicality and perhaps even obviousness are magical. Without prophecy, we have to wait and see what happens. Without educated medical knowledge and applied study, we can die. Without angel stories, we may not think as much about angels...without the gift of hospitality, we live life alone and separated from those who can help us know ourselves and our God.
If you still have a cuppa something in your hand, I toast with you to practical gifts. Gifts of mind, of applied thought, of nights spent wrestling with the names of all the bones of the body. I personally didn't receive such a gift from the Gift Giver, but I am a happy recipient of its contents all the same.