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Unofficial Prognosis

Perceptions and prescriptions of a medical student
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But I remember you

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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You may not remember me, but when I asked how you were you said “Alive.” A few weeks earlier you were afraid of going under anesthesia and not waking up. They said you’d do great; that this was routine; that we’d see you again soon. Then you coded on the table. I’ve never met someone who was grateful for life the way you expressed to me that day.

You may not remember me, but I sat by your bed and held your hand when you cried after your surgery. Not from the pain, but from loneliness. Your family was thousands of miles away. You pointed to the chair next to mine and said God was sitting there, and that He gave you strength to get through this. When you asked me where I find my own strength, I admit to you that I didn’t have a good answer.

You may not remember me, but you cast me away when I tried to interview you. “No medical students,” you said firmly. I spent the next few days learning about you from the other side of the door. I observed quietly as we spoke about you on rounds, wrote notes on you, and held multidisciplinary meetings devoted to figuring out the next step for you. When I entered your room for that two-minute interval, I hadn’t known you were dying. It was nobody’s fault. It was my fault. I’m sorry.

You may not remember me, but I was there on the best day of your life. I placed my hands around your baby’s head and helped wriggle her out of you at 3 AM after encouraging you to “push, keep pushing” for two hours. Your shades were open, and from the top floor of the hospital your brightly lit delivery room overlooked a sleeping Boston skyline. You created life as a city slumbered. As I lay your first child into your arms, it was as though nothing else in that room, in that city – or anywhere else – existed for you.

You may not remember me, but I was there on the worst day of your life. It was your 77th birthday. You had exploratory surgery to see if the mass was benign or malignant. It was malignant. It was also metastatic. In post-op I encouraged you to advance your diet so that maybe we could work our way up to a slice of birthday cake. You politely declined. What could I offer you that could mitigate what you had just heard? Please, let it be something. Yet I knew it was nothing.

You may not remember me, but you taught me abdominal anatomy. The surgeons let me guide the laparoscopic camera pushed into your belly, and I navigated the maze of tissues keeping you alive with a clarity I did not know I possessed. When it was over and you asked me what I saw, I told you only about the one structure we were looking for.

You may not remember me, but you were the happiest cancer patient I’ve ever met. You told your mama you liked the hospital. After all, here you were given pancakes for breakfast and had access to a room full of toys – when it wasn’t even your birthday! I wondered what of this you will remember once you grow past the age of three.

You may not remember me, but I was the one who told you we needed to replace the nasogastric tube you hated so much. When things had been going your way you would confide in me each morning. Your beliefs. Your hopes. Your worries. You trusted me for some reason, told me I was different. After the tube was in you relegated me to the ranks of those whose questions you answered with one word. How are you? Fine. Does anything hurt? Nope. I know you feel I betrayed you. But I couldn’t let your body suffer because I wanted you to like me. I wish you could understand.

You may not remember me. But you changed me. It was a privilege to be able to enter your life. Even if only in the moment.

Ilana Yurkiewicz About the Author: Ilana Yurkiewicz is a fourth-year student at Harvard Medical School who graduated from Yale University with a B.S. in biology. She was an AAAS Mass Media Fellow, and her work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, Aeon Magazine, Science Progress, The News & Observer, and The Best Science Writing Online 2013. She has an academic interest in bioethics, currently conducting ethics research at Harvard after previously interning at the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. She is going into internal medicine and is also interested in quality and systems improvement. Follow on Twitter @ilanayurkiewicz.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 1:00 pm 08/1/2013

    Ilana, I want to say thanks for this post. You have written poetry! Hauntingly beautiful! I couldn’t stop thinking about it last night. If it hadn’t been for the tweet I saw from Maria Konnikova I would have missed it. So thank you Maria and especially thank you Ilana.

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  2. 2. Glendon Mellow 3:14 pm 08/6/2013

    Beautiful, simply beautiful. I acutely remember the nurse who assisted the doctor when my son was born, but not her name.

    Gotta ask next time.

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