In the midst of the world’s battle with the COVID-19 virus, I sit with one of my patients who is engaged in a different, and equally enormous inner battle, every cell in her body fighting to fend off an unrelenting attack from cancer.
She has been through so much. Chemo. Pain. Revision surgery after revision surgery. She lays in her hospital bed, gazing at the ceiling, reminiscing, recalling:
Botched parts in a play resurrected with impromptu humor.
San Pedro, California in the late 1950s, “We all danced with the Slovenians until the wee hours of the morning. It was the melting pot of Los Angeles.”
She started her acting career when she was 6 years old, singing on the stage of Dana Junior High.
Richard Carpatino was her first love. “Then he spit on me at school, and I knew no matter how my heart felt, I could no longer be in love with him.”
She sang in a girl’s folk band. She got kicked out of the band because the other girls said she wasn’t good enough.
She joined a band called The Traditions and “they were very old school. One night, the leader of the band called me and told me he had too much heroine in his system. We found him on the toilet, then his brother and I threw him in the bathtub. We ended up burying him. He was such a nice guy.”
Her mom made her promise that when she became a certain age, she would do a beauty contest. “The night before the contest, they had us write something that we would read the next day on the stage. When I got up there, I said, “Howdy!” and everyone started laughing. I knew I had them right there. When it was all said and done, I accidentally won.”
Donning her “Ms. San Pedro” ribbon and a red, white and blue jumper with heels, she broke the ground at the opening of the Vincent Thomas Bridge from San Pedro to Long Beach.
Before today, I knew none of this about her. She’d always been one of my favorite patients, breaking out into spontaneous song in her exam room, but I only knew her as a hairless fighter, hunched over on her cane, hobbling in and out with an empty threat here and questionable compliment there, a wealth of spirit always apparent.
When we care for our patients, we see them in a state that does not represent the full richness of their souls, the wealth of their spirits, the depths of their life accomplishments. They are frail, weak, in pain, delirious. In the age of COVID-19, without family by their sides, we healthcare workers serve as their only witnesses. And there is so much we are unable to know about these human beings we care for. But I would posit, if we slow down, even just a little, we can feel tiny pieces of these histories emanating from our patient’s bodies, like flashes of parts from a 100,000-piece puzzle.
Is there a better way to honor our patients as they near their final days?
As I Purell my hands and get ready to leave the hospital room, my patient yells out,
“I once took my bike to the top of the hill behind my parents’ apartment, stood on the seat and rode all the way down, standing, only holding the handlebars!”
In these ever-trying times, may we each do our best to wave our patients’ handlebar moments high.
Wishing everyone safety and health,