A few years back, I took care of a frail elderly gentleman who, accompanied by his wife, had come to the ER with an elbow injury after tripping over a curb in front of a local restaurant. They had been traveling from Buffalo to Cleveland and had stopped for a quick bite and a bathroom break.
Before entering his room to treat him, I had been given a heads-up by Rita, his nurse, that this patient’s demeanor was abrasive and demanding. “You are going to love his wife, though,” Rita added, “she is one of the sweetest women I have ever met.”
Appreciating Rita’s warning, I knocked on the door and entered, prepared to face this ornery fellow. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was this patient’s physical appearance. He was extremely small in stature, petite almost. His legs dangled over the cot’s side and swayed several feet above the tiled-floor. His clothes hung loosely off his thin frame. His fedora hat swallowed up his round, veiny face and bulbous nose. His eyes were apprehensive, his grimace distasteful. His presence, contrasting his physicality, was enormous and palpable.
In the corner of the room sat his wife, a beautiful gray-haired woman, equally frail and petite, clutching her purse. She wore a loosely-fitting flowered dress and a warm, welcoming smile. She was Sophia’s twin from “The Golden Girls.”
To allow my patient a chance to size me up, I acknowledged his wife first, returning her welcoming smile as I greeted her. I then turned to my intensely grumpy patient and introduced myself, asking him how I could help him on his visit.
“Doctor, I need stitches,” he answered, pointing to his right elbow. His voice was gruff and heavy, weighted by a thick European accent. “I hurt my knee before like this, and that’s what they had to do,” he continued, pulling up his pressed pant leg to reveal his small bony knee with a pencil-thin scar across its cap.
This gentleman remained quite ornery during his interview, his examination, and his treatment. He continued to insist that he needed stitches. He didn’t, though, and it took me several minutes to convince him of this. He simply had some abrasions and skin-tears. However, he did need some x-rays, and after getting them, I explained the negative results to his wife and him. His wife smiled and clapped her hands at the good news while he simply grunted. They were a dichotomy of spirits. Gradually, though, I could see him softening towards me as his visit concluded. After cleaning his wounds and bandaging his elbow, I assured him he would be discharged shortly.
I was not surprised that within mere minutes, while sitting at my work station, this patient was standing impatiently at the nurses’ counter asking what was taking so long for him to be discharged.
His voice was loud and imposing, and those of us sitting paused from what we were doing to look toward the source. His fedora and pinched-up face barely cleared the height of the counter, and yet he had made his presence known. After hearing his booming accented-voice again, as well as to placate him while Rita prepared his instructions, I asked him about the origin of his accent.
“Sir,” I said, “I noticed your accent. Where did it originate?”
And with that question, this patient opened his heart’s floodgates and willingly launched into his past, sharing an astounding story that most of us would never have imagined.
He was a Holocaust survivor from Poland, he said with a quieter voice, who tragically lost his entire family at the age of 11 — his parents, his five sisters, his aunts and uncles, and all of his cousins. He survived because a local farming family took him in as “one of their own” during the war. At the age of 20, he had saved up enough money to immigrate to America, “the greatest country in the world.” After arriving penniless, he settled in Ohio, where he met his wife. Together they raised four children and owned a successful business. “I’ve had a very, very good life,” he concluded.
It was a story that made you catch your breath.
As he finished, his wife approached him and put her arm around his shoulders. He looked at her, and she nodded a loving reassurance to him.
Not one among us sitting there had a dry eye. His abrasive personality had softened and his incredible story of survival had humanized him right before us. With this glimpse into his private life, we were all suddenly filled with empathy and compassion for this man, his wife, and this life he had fought to live. With all of us in silence, he turned slowly to go back to his room. “I’ll be in my room waiting for those papers.”
It was unimaginable to think we had almost missed this patient’s remarkable story because it was hidden behind his rough exterior and abrupt attitude.
This patient had taught us all a very worthy lesson that day, which resonates, especially in today’s world. With all of the fears and uncertainties currently in our society, we need to remember that behind every face of every person we encounter, whether masked or not, sits an incredible and powerful story of a life unlike ours, of a life unknown to us. Stories of resilience, of loss, of triumph, and of inspiration. Occasionally, as this patient reminded us, it just takes a little more time and effort to peel the layers back to find the good stuff of another.
With each interaction we have with one another, then, what an amazing opportunity we are given to tap into our capacity to understand one another regardless of our similarities and differences.
We need to halt the quick judgments and criticisms. We are all bound by threads of love and understanding, respect, and compassion. Why are we so quick to fray these threads instead of double-knotting and strengthening them?
For the sake of skin color?
For the sake of religion?
For the sake of social background?
For the sake of gender?
For the sake of age?
For the sake of sexual preference?
For the sake of material possessions?
Please, of all things, don’t let it be for the sake of consciously choosing hate over love.
None of these reasons are worth tearing down and hurting another. None of these reasons are worth crumbling the foundation of our beautiful country. All of these reasons are worth our efforts to take the time to learn more about one another.
Let’s double-knot these threads that bind each of us and choose love.
As I’ve said before, in a society that wants to separate us based on our differences, we are reminded daily through shared tragedies and triumphs that we will always be more alike. Let’s grasp these reminders tightly and make the world a better place.
A heartfelt thanks to my patient for reminding me that each of us has a life journey that most don’t know about. Because of this, we should always try to be patient and kind with one another. And understanding. And respectful. And compassionate. And loving.
To me, it is the only way.
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