I made friends with one of my patients. Mike. Essentially, he had drinken too much in his lifetime – albeit a short one, maybe 55 years – and was dying of it when I met him. How trite. “His mortality was basically, like 90% when he walked through the door,” I overheard a chief resident say. “I’m surprised he’s still here.” Still there, sallow cheeks, empty of ill-fitting dentures, a few wily hairs off the top his head, deep eye sockets, a small, small round hole for a smile. There was a neat gash across his belly which I likened to a wound one might get fencing. I packed it each night with gauze and tied up the laces on the straps which held on his dressings. A hole on his side hosted a large-bore tube draining pancreatic fluid, a milky enzyme, something you might squash from an insect. Underneath him a sore appeared and disappeared and appeared again. I once saw him out of bed, the first day I met him.
That was around the time I met his wife. Then she stopped coming (at least on my shift).
The war was big on TV. I watched most of what I saw on TV about Iraq with Mike, and we talked. We talked about psychology, his profession, and the way people think. Mike began to talk about the “black hole” he wanted to escape to. Would I please give him a Morphine-Percocet-Ambien cocktail before sleep. He wanted to escape the helplessness and excruciating monotony (of waiting to die).
Doctors were talking ambiguously with Mike. Even when bright red blood started to erupt from the big tube coming from his flank, they avoided the room. I told him I would come visit if I got a chance and I never did. The next day when I showed up for work he was in the ICU. And a little while later, days passing of my thinking of visiting but failing to, he went home to die.
I’m not sure I ever realized he was dying. I’m supposed to make people better.
He’s the first person I’ve gotten a chance to know before they died. I’m not sad, I’m not shocked or bewildered, I’m just sitting in this little black hole, colonized with all the other people who never get a chance to think about what matters.