Saturday, April 22, 2006

Aneurysms and Anniversaries

Today I went to see a friend in the rehab hospital. She's only a few years older than I am, and she's recovering from brain surgery to fix an aneurysm. She was having weird headaches a few weeks back, but since she had a lot of stress, I guess she didn't pay them much mind. Then one day her husband found her on the floor. Emergency workup, discovery, surgery, ICU, rehab. All in a few whirlwind days. Well, up to the ICU part. She stayed there a couple weeks after surgery, moved to rehab yesterday.

Today was the first day I went to see her. I meant to go before. I thought about it from time to time, but there was always some reason I couldn't go. It was too late in the day. I was ill. I was out of town. I was too tired. I forgot. I heard she had too many visitors. I forgot again.

As I walked in there today and felt my pulse rise and my sweat glands pop into action, I understood that what had kept me from visiting before today was simple fear. Iced with denial. I was afraid of how I'd find her. I was afraid of her debility. I was afraid I would be unable to be natural with her. I was afraid of her fear. Of her mortality. Of my mortality. Of that sneaky devil Bad Luck, or Mischance, that cruel and random force that strikes out of the blue .

She looked like herself. Except for the scar across her head and the shadows under her eyes. She recognized me. She spoke in complete sentences. She stood to hug me and only wobbled a little. Some of her words were slurred and she didn't seem to hear everything I said. Sometimes her thoughts jumped randomly. I had been warned that this was happening. She still has swelling on the brain, and blood. It will take time to see whether she will recover completely or not. She's lucky to be alive.

A scant hour before I went to the rehab hospital, I attended my own service recognition ceremony at the University, along with two hundred others. I stood in line, received my handshake and token gift, applauded for the others, wondered how 15 years had flown by so fast. While the other honorees lined up, I sat yawning in my seat, sneaking looks at my reading book between claps, wondering what kind of food they'd have at the reception. I was frankly bored.

An hour later, sitting next to my friend on her hospital bed, I felt chagrined. Here she was, struggling to form a complete sentence, and I had been bored with the service anniversary ceremony. I should have spent that time awash in gratitude. Gratitude that I was alive and well and capable of working fifteen years.

I take my health for granted. I take my life for granted. I forget to be grateful.

There's nothing like the illness of a friend to put things in perspective.


anafaran said...

It's human nature to be bored at such things Dr. Peg. Accept the boredom as a good time to just slip into a meditative state. Don't look at it as anything but an opportunity to have downtime. You give a lot of yourself and insight to others through your blogsite writings and your doctoring. I don't like to put the energy into the 'shame on me' kind of thoughts. It doesn't seem all that productive anymore. When it's our time, it's our time. Our sicknesses and disabilities are all part of life. I know you're a caring doctor, but sometimes we go overboard. Think of yourself, you deserve the attentioin.

Bardiac said...

Great post. It's really important to have perspective, and to really value the positive things we have. But it's also incredibly difficult, day to day, to appreciate the mundane healthfulness, job, family, roof over our heads, and so forth... until it's not mundane. Then it's easy to appreciate them, at least for a bit.

dribear said...

Very touching post. I need reminders all the time to not take myself, life, wife, family, friends and job for granted. You're not alone.

Doc NOS said...

Jesus, this is like my worst nightmare: to miss the sentinel bleed. And there's really no 100% reliable way to distinguish them from a migraine in someone with migraines. Uggh.

Best of luck to her.

Peg Spencer said...

Thanks all for your comments. I went to our local novelty shop and bought her some toys to make rehab more fun. My favorite is a rubber chicken who, when you squeeze her, squirts out a shell-less egg out her bottom: a clear expandable "membrane" with "egg-white" complete with floaties (ee-yew) and a suspended "yolk". Release her chicken belly and the "egg" pops back in.

Hours of fun.

Giovanni said...

I remember a time when I was quite ill and wondered whether my illness would completely change my life forever. It's quite sobering - especially when you see that the world around you goes on as it normally does and it is content in its self-absorption.

You wish that someone could just reach in a pull you out of the dimension into which you've fallen. But you know it is just not possible. So you embrace the experience, try to create meaning and review your life as you intend to change it once (if) the suffering is past.

Hmmm...never knew I'd say this today. In any event, experiences like these are humbling, and it is through humility that we become stronger.

And when I write 'you' above, I really mean 'I'.


peg said...

giovanni - Thanks for sharing (I mean that seriously - and I can say it with a straight face since I used to be a Californian).

Not everyone takes the attitude you did with your illness.

So you embrace the experience, try to create meaning and review your life as you intend to change it once (if) the suffering is past.

I'm impressed. The same could be said for any tough experience in life - loss, change, challenge. Embrace it and try to create meaning from it.

Thanks for the inspiration.

connery said...



I was thinking about this topic two weeks before I read this touching essay.

Very eloquently described. I felt it as I read it. Your reaction, etc. Not all of
us would be able to recognize or admit that that's what led to the
procrastination to visit.

Sure, as physicians (I am a physician, as are you), we deal with ICU crises and major illnesses, and risks
of death and permanent brain damage more often than most other lay people.
But, we're all "regular, lay people" on the inside; it's what we were first, what
we were born as, before we developed the "superpowers of physicianhood."

You give us that situation to our friends and family, we react as people first, no
matter what knowledge we may have, or how we might treat that same lady
as a "stranger," as "just a patient."

Yes, your friend is lucky to have such a caring, emotionally aware friend as

Yes, our reactions to these things speaks to our own reactions to ourselves.
The "What if?" dread that creeps over us.

"There but for the Grace of G-d go I" is a favorite phrase of mine, not just as
a clicheed phrase, but to really hold on to the words and FEEL their meaning.
It's probably at the root of my empathy that I am able to share with my
friends and loved ones and family, and patients. That could be me on the
other side of that bed or that stethoscope.

Sudden tragic stuff could happen to any of us. It happened to your friend. It
happens to this guy and that lady and this patient and that one's friend's
brother-in-law, etc. We're all human.

So, you enjoy your life, and live your life to the fullest, and then, I find [upbeat, spiritual, caring-friend e-mail/philosophical sayings that get passed on via the web], and you
remember to go and hug your loved ones, as a friend of ours said.

Why does life-altering tragedy touch one person and not another? Who

I ate dinner at Windows On the World at the World Trade Center in the spring
of 2001. What a beautiful view, fantastic food, wine, the closeness of a loved
one, warm springtime evening. There but for the Grace of G-d. Who knew
what terrorists would do that September 11th? How random was it that they
picked September 11th instead of May 11th, or whatever day we went there?

You never know. None of us knows.

Just grab on to life and hold it as joyfully and playfully and lovingly as you can.
While you can.

Just some of my random thoughts and reactions, after having read this item.

connery said...

Sorry. That was quite a bit longer than most comments I've seen here. Didn't mean to violate any "Blog Etiquette" rules. I'm kinda new here. Didn't mean to take up so much space. Do I need to send you $2.59, like you said in the May 1 edition? Would that cover it? Probably not.

peg said...

connery - No apology needed for that very rich comment. Worth more than $2.59, so save your change. I don't think there are "rules" for blog comment lengths. I've seen it all.

Thanks for your thoughts. Sounds like you've truly been "on both sides of the stethoscope" in your life.

I like what your friend said about hugging your loved ones. I like better what you said:

Just grab on to life and hold it as joyfully and playfully and lovingly as you can.
While you can.

anafaran said...

Both of you doctors are darlings. I think next time I need a doctor or two to mend me and hold my hand I guess I'll dial Dr. Peg and Dr. Connery. On second thought, however,there ought better be a computer near my bedside so I can hit the search engines!

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