An excerpt from All Bleeding Stops.
Megan continues to take his blood pressure every few minutes. With growing tenderness Denis watches her fidgeting with the IV, biting her lip, eyes flitting from one machine to the next, desperately seeking the reassurance she knows will never come.
She thinks she’s not a good doctor because she hasn’t memorized enough textbooks or performed enough surgeries. She is so painfully aware of what she lacks, but she forgets that what we long for when we are sick – grievously sick, mortally sick – is not a cure. We know it’s too late for that. What we long for is a healing, an assurance that the human connection that seems about to be dissolved forever will somehow bridge the deep chasm we are about to cross. Scalpels can’t effect that. Textbooks can’t teach it. But compassion, the simple, unaffected love of our fellow man, can. The knowledge that someone cares, that we are not alone. Gestures, touches, smiles.
He wishes he could explain all this to Megan. She’s just starting out in medicine. Her heart’s in the right place, but a doctor can follow the heart only so far.
Denis tries to speak, but no words come. He tries again but manages only a rasping gurgle at the base of his throat. He closes his eyes for a moment, then realizes with a start that he must have been moaning. Megan reaches for the morphine, but he shakes his head. He isn’t feeling any more pain. He wonders if this might be it.
Lynch has pulled Megan away. Through half-open eyes, Denis sees them standing at the foot of the cart, Lynch behind, his hands clasped firmly on Megan’s shoulders. Tears are streaming down her face. Lynch is speaking to her, but Denis can no longer hear what he is saying.
Images, at first murky and indistinct but quickly becoming fresh and vibrant, appear before him, burning with the brilliance of youth – so real, so shimmeringly alive that they seem to carry him along, plunging and rising life a leaf spinning along on the surface of a sunlit stream.
The images begin to run together: the past and the present, the delivery rooms and the operating rooms, the jungles and the clinics, gathered up in the warm embrace of memory like an armful of ripened wheat. The fond harvest of a lifetime. Sixty years as a doctor have humbled him, have taught him that everything in medicine is symbolic, metaphoric. In the end there are no cures; there are only bandages – and the bandage that matters most is love.
Michael J. Collins is an orthopedic surgeon and author of All Bleeding Stops. He can be reached on Twitter @mjcollinsmd.