It was a cloudy and cold October day. Even worse, a Saturday morning when everything is supposed to be sunny and warm, and great for things like a breakfast outside and a market stroll. But I really did not care much about that. I was on-call at the hospital, and there was something so heavy about the morning that it made me head straight for the Starbucks area amazingly available in the lobby. I know I should not like it, but there is something so comforting about the colors and the smell and everyone there is so young and happy and they call you by name… It’s just like a warm heavy blanket over unsettling emotions and worries.
My pumpkin spice latte is ready! The calming energy and memories are flowing, the fall colors outside are now in my mind. The crispy air whiffs me to the mountains somewhere, happy and carefree… and then the phone rings. I reluctantly answer before taking my first sip, hoping there is no emergency.
It was way worse than that: the lab tells me about the biopsy results for one of my patients, and it’s bad. In fact, it is super bad – it’s cancer.
Suddenly, the coffee doesn’t taste good, the pictures in my head are gone, and I am back in the grayish-white hallway. My heart is really heavy. I got to know this patient well over the last couple of days. I met his wife, and we shared stories about our kids (theirs are much older than mine, lucky them). We discovered along the way that we are from Transylvania – the land of vampires thanks to Mr. Stokes and his book but in reality, the most beautiful land in Eastern Europe. We bonded over food and holiday memories, talked about upcoming trips, and what we would do once there. He was retired, so his plans were always longer than mine and made me sigh every single time.
And now it’s all gone. It’s cancer. It’s an upcoming fight and medications and hospital visits. I walked to his room and right before knocking; I just peeked inside. The big doors have a window area so I could see him and his wife talking and smiling at times. She was showing something on the phone and he was nodding. They were so much at peace in their own world. And that was when it hit me. I was about to shatter all that. Their world their peace their plans their life. Their life won’t be the same the moment I step into that room and say the word cancer. I don’t even need to say anything I have one of those faces easy to read – bad for gambling. And suddenly I could not do it. I could not make myself enter the room.
In 18 years of hospital work, this certainly wasn’t the first time I had to share bad news with someone. After a certain point, we as doctors get used to pain and have our armor up, so whenever moments like this hit, the shock is blunted and absorbed by it. But sometimes the pain goes through and you feel like hit by a bullet.
So, I kept on watching them. I reasoned with myself: maybe I’ll come back or at least I give them a bit more time before their life is changed forever. Just a few minutes. Why not let them have a bit more time with normalcy and calm and worry-free?
“What are you dreaming of here?? Did you talk to them? I need him to go for the tests you all want. Go talk to him!” – she almost shoves me in. ‘She’ is one of the nurses on the floor, one of the best, in fact, but boy, she is not for the faint-hearted. She reminds me of Rachett, the nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and here now I was the poor Jack Nicholson’s character trying to rebel. But I knew better. Some nurses make doctors feel like young residents still, even with two decades of experience. And I knew she was right. I needed to tell them.
So I walked in, and, yes, the moment his wife looked up at me – she knew, so her hand went over his. He was less attentive, probably still thinking about their conversation.
But he was listening, and as I was talking, I could see the waves of emotions flowing through his eyes and the sadness was the worst of all. I made the message it as hopeful as I could while making sure I go over everything and trying to forget that I just shattered their peaceful day and I now will always be that mark in their life that changed everything for the worst.
And they were so gracious. They accepted the news, asked their questions, and silently cried. And all this time I was apologizing for the news as if I were the cancer cell myself. And then they looked at me… and thanked me for being there for them, and taking care of him, and “just being an angel who tried to comfort” them. They shifted their focus to make me feel better and, my goodness, we are so funny as human beings – I did feel better! I eventually came out of the room and burst into: “They called me an angel”. I couldn’t help it – feeling a bit less heavy on my feet, seeing the light and the colors coming back.
And right there and then: “You are an angel alright, the angel of death”. The nurse’s voice came out of nowhere and hit my bubble like a missile, exploding me back into the grayish-white world.
I have been the angel of death many times before and after that. Sometimes it hurts like hell. Sometimes, we manage to hold our breath until the stinging pain is gone, and we can move to the next patient and fight the battle. Me and all my fellow doctors – we know that we do sometimes lose, even when we do our best. And the very next day, we have to stand up and fight again against sickness and death, fully knowing we might still lose and someone s life will be shattered. And it takes the life out of us so many times and leaves scars nobody will ever see.
But we have no choice – we fight. In fact, even if I had had a choice, I would still do this. Every time. Because it’s a privilege and an honor to be someone’s angel even if in the end it’s the angel of darkness. I still bring compassion and care and a steady hand that they can lean on – until the end. And I just can’t think of a better place to be.
This is a tribute to all my fellow doctors and nurses and everyone struggling to do their best during this year and pandemic. In this darkness, I SEE YOU!