All the world is a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and entrances;
Each man in his time plays many parts.
“There’s a consult downstairs, Campbell. Go check it out and I’ll catch up with you later.”
“Sure, OK.” I was a third-year medical student fumbling through my first clinical rotations. The resident headed off to whatever he needed to accomplish and I trotted down the back stairwell. I glanced at the consultation slip and found the patient’s room number.
56-year-old man with progressive medical problems. Please evaluate for central line placement.
Not much information. The man was on the General Medicine ward and needed a more permanent intravenous line to avoid having to put a new IV in his hand every day or two. Arranging for the new line would be our job.
I reached the ward and found the chart that matched the room number. As I started flipping through the chart, I froze. “I might know him,” I realized.
Finally, I worked up the courage to push open the door. “Mr. Anderson?” I called. My medical school was only twelve miles from my childhood home, yet as I peeked into the room, I was still hopeful that I would find a different person with the same name lying in the bed.
He looked up and smiled. “Bruce! Look at you with your white coat! Very impressive. C’mon in!” He looked thinner and a bit yellow but was as enthusiastic as ever.
I had been very busy over the previous two years with medical school and had not seen him recently. Thomas Anderson [not his real name] had been a family friend throughout my childhood — one of those people that kids love, teenagers respect and adults seek out at a party. He was always a big, gregarious man with an easy lope and a ready smile. He was never in a hurry. He was active all over the community and had had been one of my scout leaders during my childhood. I realized later that he had volunteered to be a scoutmaster well before his own son had been old enough to join.
As I sat in his hospital room, I remembered a weekend camping trip in seventh grade. After we had finished the evening routine, Mr. Anderson made certain that all of the kids were tucked in for the night. Not long afterwards, I peeked out to see why the adults were all laughing. There were all of the dads sitting around the table drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and playing pinochle. They were clearly having a wonderful time in a 1960s-kind-of-way. The game broke up late, yet Mr. Anderson was the first one up in the morning getting breakfast prepared and setting us to our tasks for the day.
We sat and talked for a while, and he invited me to look at the criss-crossing surgical scars on his abdomen. “Did you see the admission number on my chart?” he asked. I had. The number told me that this was the 24th time he had been in the hospital. “These days, I spend more time here than at home.”
I finished up my examination and turned to leave. I would spend the next half-hour writing up my report for his chart and would return later with the rest of the team to make arrangements for the IV. I stopped in the doorway to say goodbye. He looked at me.
“Bruce, tell me something. Is this the first time you have cared for someone from your world outside of the hospital?”
“Yes, Mr. Anderson, it is.”
He paused then smiled. “Well, I suppose that you had better get used to it.”
“Thanks, Mr. Anderson. I am certain that I will.”
Thirty years later, though, I realize that I never have.
Bruce Campbell is an otolaryngologist who blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror.
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