I see you, sitting in your bed, the gown askew on your shoulders. Too frail to tie it yourself, or perhaps with aching shoulders that don’t allow you to reach behind to grasp the other end of the tie, you lie back instead and just leave it open so it slides around when you move. Your thin white hair, what’s left of it, sticks up off your aged scalp underneath a worn kippah, and the thin skin on your arms shows abrasions and bruising from any little bump.
I come in, to greet you, and your eyes light up. As we talk about why you’re in the Emergency Department today, the wrinkles in your face become animated and show me your personality. Somehow, even ninety years later you still have a dimple when you smile, and are able to flirt like a man many years younger. In your illness, you remain as dignified as you can be, and do your best to cooperate with my barrage of quick medical questions and physical exam maneuvers. I spend only a few minutes in your room, but yet we form a relationship. You imprint your kindness upon me when you graciously tell me how young I look, how smart I am for being so young, how pretty my smile is. (I don’t believe half of it myself, but you do, and that is what makes me leave your room with a spring in my step).
Later, testing complete, I come back to your room to share the news. I stand by your side and tell you how your tests are all normal, and you are free to go back to your residence in reasonable health. You take my hand in thanks, and I look down to see that faded tattoo on your arm; a number, etched in so many years ago, still blue and painful to both of us. I swallow tears as I rub my thumb across the horror you still bear witness to, and give your hand a squeeze as I wish you the best and say goodbye.
Across the way, another day, there is another room, and it contains another man. He is the same age as you, and has seen the same horrors. He has the same white whispy hair under the same style kippah, the same crooked gown, same wrinkled skin. He has the same tattoo, albeit a different number. But he suffers from dementia, and to him those horrors are happening today, every day, in these rooms. He doesn’t know that the Holocaust ended in 1945, and that we are in 2018. He believes, truly believes, that it is 1941 and the hospital room he lies in is a dormitory in Auschwitz. Every examination by a nurse or a physician, he knows is being done by a Nazi doctor intent on experimenting upon and hurting him. Every needle poke, every medication he is forced to take, are torture. All night long I can hear him crying, screaming, moaning in agony. Even after we stop investigating, and are just trying to keep him comfortable, he continues to fight and spit, hit and kick at everyone who comes into his room. Though we wish dearly that we could send him home, to a place he somewhat knows, we can’t do so because his nursing home shipped him here for unmanageable behaviour. All I can do is tell him it’s ok, every time I go near his room. I try to calm him, like I would a small child, with soothing voice and calming demeanour. But when he looks at me all he sees is a torturer, a murderer of his family and his people, and so he shouts and waves his fists still strong enough to wield a painful blow should I come too close. When he is finally admitted to hospital and is taken upstairs to a room hopefully quieter and less frightening to him, I sadly breathe a sigh of relief because his shrill shrieks will no longer tear into my soul.
Every day, in the halls of medicine, we meet patients that touch our hearts. These stories are only some of those I could tell about old men in my Emergency Department. When I meet men like these, they stir deep emotion. Before motherhood, I used to think of my father when faced with older men needing my help. Now, all I can think when I care for these men, is, “I hope one day, when my son is an old man, a young doctor will treat him with as much kindness and compassion as I do with this patient”.
I close my eyes in the brightly lit hallway in the middle of a night shift and pray with all my heart that the good deeds I do today come back to me as a safeguard for my children. Let all the light I bring to others brighten the future of my son and daughter, in a time when I will be gone and unable to care for them myself.