I can smell the wafting aroma of frying onions and tomatoes as I am upstairs, just waking for the day. I am 10 years old, and these aromas are the staple of my childhood. It brings back memories of home. I walk downstairs and see my dad stirring the tomatoes and onions in the frying pan, dancing and singing: “I am cooking for my kid!” “Kid” is the term he used collectively for my twin sister and me. That’s one of the memories I have when my dad was healthy.
The next memory: Disney World. My dad was glued to the video camera. Our family videos are saturated with the Small World ride, Epcot Center, the Carousel of Progress, my dad lip-syncing to Kool and the Gang and the list plays onward.
Those were just a few memories of my dad when he was healthy. Back then, he didn’t have to go to doctor’s appointments. Back then, he didn’t have to keep track of his blood pressure and his medications.
His cascade of illness started when I was in high school. I remember my mom picking my sister and me up from school to go directly to the hospital. We studied and ate dinner, albeit hospital food, there. My dad’s creatinine was alarmingly elevated, and his electrolytes were not quite on par. My dad was in kidney failure, and he had multivessel heart disease. Over the years, my new normal for my dad became his dialysis and his CABG (his open-heart surgery).
He never let on he was as sick as he was. He compared going to the outpatient hemodialysis center three times a week as his new apartment. And after his open-heart surgery, he joked that his sternum could just easily fall off if he coughs.
When my twin sister and I graduated from Boston College, my mom set up a limousine car service to bring my dad to the hemodialysis center immediately after my sister, and I walked across the stage. My dad always told us not to worry about him and that, “I’m fine, kid!” He eventually received a call from Lifelink to receive a transplanted kidney, and then, he really was fine.
He was so well, he flew with me as I interviewed at the medical school I would soon attend. I remember when I found out I got accepted into medical school. I was living in Miami at the time when my dad called me on my cell. I pulled into a parking lot as my dad sounded frantic.
“Lizbeth, you did it!”
In the background, I heard my dad singing and dancing. “My kid is gonna be a doctor!” He called me and my sister his “Golden Girls.” We weren’t old women like the show implied, but he felt like everything we did and achieved in life turned into gold.
For 15 years, my dad did well. Then, his body started failing him with first, a massive bleed in which he miraculously survived, and then, he developed post-transplant proliferative disorder, a rare condition that transformed itself into an aggressive B-cell lymphoma.
Despite his illnesses, my dad never defined himself by his disease. He continued to laugh, joke, and dance — albeit in his hospital room wearing his hospital gown. He was a gardener, a father, a comic, a grandpa, a husband, a registered nurse, and much more.
After weeks of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, my dad told me he was tired of hospitals and of the torture of different scans, tests, and lab draws. He was done being a health care warrior and was ready for what came next.
He told me to share on social media the importance of only doing what’s necessary and to teach future doctors the importance of compassionate medicine.
“Remind them that an NG tube is painful, and an MRI is very loud, and you have to stay still for 45 minutes.”
My dad wanted doctors to know how it felt to walk in his shoes.
Doctors, remember that your patients hold in trepidation all the tests and labs you order. Think carefully if this is necessary. Listen to your patients if they are in pain. Listen to families’ concerns. Sit down. Take your time, although you are pressured for time. Hug and even pray for your patients.
While my dad was on hospice, he mustered the energy to thank everyone, including the social worker who visited us. He told us that he loved us all. I will always remember my dad as someone selfless, who gave more than he received and loved with all his heart.
Though my dad has left this earth to eternity in heaven, I feel my dad’s presence everywhere. Although I will no longer smell the wafting aroma of my dad sautéing onions and tomatoes in the kitchen and dancing while he sings “I’m cooking for my kid,” I will continue to see patients undergoing hemodialysis, patients post-op after open-heart surgery, kidney transplant patients thankful for yet another day and cancer patients fighting for their lives. All these scenarios are the journeys my dad had also walked.
I miss my dad every day and will do so for the rest of my life. I quote one of my dad’s favorite song:
Let’s take a walk together near the ocean shore
Hand in hand you and I
Let’s cherish every moment we have been given
The time is passing by
I often pray before I lay down
If you receive your calling before I awake
Could I make it through the night
Cherish the love we have
We should cherish the life we live
The world is always changing
Nothing stays the same
But love will stand the test of time.
-Kool and the gang
I love you daddy, and I write this piece in loving memory of you. You are the reason I became a physician.
Lizbeth Hingst is a hospitalist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com