by Howard Eskildsen
A gaggle of white-cloaked medical students gathered around the nursing station on the fifth floor of the hospital’s east tower. The resident physician in charge, who preferred to be called Tim, oriented them to their place of work and study for the next three months. The oncology ward was the dread rotation for medical students with its sights, sounds, and smells of the gravely ill, many of whom were dying. “Do we poison them, or do we burn them?” was often the behind-the-scenes question while discussing the options of chemo or radiation therapy for “the colon cancer” in room 510 or “the lung CA” in room 514. “Both” was the most likely answer.
Allen was handed a thick chart in an aluminum binder. Oh no! She had had leukemia, breast cancer, and now colon cancer. He looked at Tim with a quizzical glance, wondering what more they could possibly do for or to this poor soul. “Her name is Alice,” Tim said softly, then turned to assign patients to the other students.
Allen sighed and waded through the mounds of test reports, progress notes, medications, and so on, to try and gain a picture of the situation. Through a door left ajar he could see a gaunt figure lying on her side with scattered thin strands of red hair still clinging to her taut scalp. Skeletal anatomy showed clearly through her thin skin from the back of her neck to the top of her torso. He glanced down once more at her name in the lower corner of the chart and gasped. Oh my god, she was the same age as his wife.
Allen awkwardly entered the room and identified himself to the spectral creature before him. She opened her eyes and smiled, then held out a hand and said: Hi Doc! Though her bony hand was cold, he could feel the warmth of her soul and see the light of life in her eyes. She held on for longer than just a handshake.
After the usual medical ritual of questions and examination, she looked at his left hand and said: You’re married, doc, tell me about your wife. A smile crossed Allen’s face at the mention of his wife. Alice had found the one subject that he felt most relaxed taking about and when he finished, Alice remarked that she almost felt like she knew her. Then she added: Tomorrow I will have to tell you about my husband and daughter. She pointed to a photo of a handsome, dark-haired man holding a bashful two-year-old girl with curly hair.
Somehow Allen’s days went a little easier and he no longer dreaded the morning rounds on the oncology floor since could he now visualize the person rather than disease in the people he saw, thanks to Alice. He made it a habit to stopping by her room at the end of his shift, and sometimes they shared stories of family and of life in general; other times when her day had been particularly hard, she would just silently hold out her hand.
Little, by little, however, her strength was slipping away and the brightness in her eyes fading. It briefly revived one morning when she proudly presented her husband and daughter. He appeared older and wearier than the man in the picture and their daughter clung warily to his leg as they stood at the opposite end of the room. He offered only a weak handshake and a simple “Hi,” and seemed distracted, perhaps haunted, by the prostrate form of what had once been of his wife and lover. His daughter held back also, not recognizing the gaunt face of the woman who had given her life only two years before. None the less, in their presence, Alice’s eyes had shown more brightly than before or than they ever would again.
Though the brightness of life was slipping from her countenance, it never completely departed. One late Friday morning she remarked that Allen’s clothes were the same ones that he had worn the day before. Yup, he confirmed, he had not been home since the day before and had had no chance to change them. Then he added that after rounds he was going home and had the weekend off and would not be back till Monday. Get some rest, Doc, she whispered, and then added: See you Monday.
He returned home for much needed rest, but that could wait. Much importantly, he needed to look into the eyes of his own wife for the reassurance that she was still alive and well. If he hugged her a little more tightly and a little more often than usual, she did not mind. Had she asked about the unusual attention, he might have replied: I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you.
The weekend passed much too quickly and early Monday morning he returned to the oncology ward. Tim, the resident physician in charge, stood by the nurse’s station flipping through a chart. Through the opening in the door to room 505 he noticed an empty bed with sheets neatly folded, awaiting a new patient. With a bewildered look on his face, Allen tapped Tim’s shoulder and simply asked: Alice? Tim just shook his head, gazed downward, and walked away.
Allen’s eyes blurred and an all-too-familiar knot seized his stomach. He wanted some time alone, but other patients awaited and there was little time for self-pity. Somehow, he toiled on as one day blurred into another and another. Though grieving, it was memories of the spark of life that had emanated from Alice’s eyes that kept him from sinking into the bland apathy that stalks those forced to battle beyond the endurance of their emotions.
Through the years that followed, Allen attended the endings and the beginnings of life too many times to count, but thanks to Alice, he learned to view each as a person, not a disease, and to recognize how special life is no matter how long or short it may last.
Though decades have passed since those long days and nights on the oncology ward, sometimes late at night, when the wind rattling through the rafters blows the sleep from my eyes, I still think of Alice.
© Eskildoodle 2021