The patchwork quilt of my medical care

I was cleaning out the top shelf of my closet — a location where, hypothetically, treasures can be found. I came upon something that was wrapped in a nondescript brown paper bag that smelled oddly of mothballs. I cautiously reached inside and found an heirloom quilt that apparently had been passed down through generations. I had discovered it an estate sale, and now it had finally come to rest in my home. The squares which were once vibrantly colored now looked faded and washed out. The intricate stitching that was used to piece together the squares looked fragile to the touch, and the binding that encircled the quilt was frayed. In a word, the quilt which at one time had been witness to the comings and goings of life looked tired. I gingerly placed it back into its bag hoping that I had not caused any further damage.

As I lay in my bed that night, I listened to the songs of mocking birds off in the distance, bringing a peaceful feeling to my mind. I thought about that old quilt and the story it could tell if it was able — the family it helped to keep warm on a cold, winter evening or the lonely, frail old woman snuggling under its weight, feeling secure and loved. Loving hands originally constructed this quilt with the hope that those who would follow in life would take pause and honor what had been accomplished. When it comes down to it, isn’t that what most of us hope for? That one day we will be remembered for the good we brought to this life.

I guess my life, now entering its seventh decade, is similar to that old quilt.

There are extremely happy times of raising a family, vacations at the shore, graduations, grandchildren, and watching my children grow into happy and caring adults. But with the bright moments, also come the shadows when my health wages battle against me. On these occasions, I reach for my “quilt,” the people in my life who bring me comfort and restore my spirit.

Certainly, among them are members of my family, but there are others who hold a special place in my heart. I remember the nurse who cared for me when I was hospitalized. She checked on me nightly, making sure I was resting peacefully. She came to my bedside when I woke up gasping for air because of the nasogastric tube that had been inserted following my surgery. Her touch and caring voice reassured me that I would be fine. She was there to wish me well on the day of my discharge, and I thanked her for the kindness she had shown me, tending to me as if I was a member of her own family.

I recall my cardiac rehab nurses whom I met following my heart attack.

Disillusioned about the future, I wondered if my life would ever return back to normal. They were there to encourage me with their words of wisdom that, indeed, my life would flourish again. Day by day, my body grew physically stronger, but more importantly, I realized that I could forge a new and improved lifestyle and that I didn’t have to live in fear. So much eventually changed for me — I was running in races, including half-marathons in my 60s (I was not previously a runner!). Something I would have never thought possible. To give the gift of self-confidence to someone is invaluable. No words can adequately express my gratitude to them.

And then, there is my doctor who has been with me every step of the way these past several years. For him, each patient is more than numbers and conditions that are written in a medical chart. Each is a unique individual with a story to be told and more importantly, to be heard. My doctor is present when he doesn’t have to be, checking on me to make sure a procedure has gone as expected, reassuring me when “bad news” has been given or helping me put things into perspective. He is there to support and to lend encouragement to whatever endeavors I have attempted, and there have been some unusual ones — like running in a marathon (as a cardiac patient)! His allegiance to the welfare of his patients is unwavering. And for all of this, I trust him with my life.

In my mind as well as that of his colleagues, medical students and residents that he mentors, my doctor is the modern-day version of Sir William Osler, an individual who is still so relevant to the practice of medicine or let’s say the way medicine should be practiced. Osler realized that a doctor in training has as much to learn from his patients as he does from his textbooks. He writes:

“The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head. Often the best part of your work will have nothing to do with potions or powders, but with the exercise of an influence of the strong upon the weak, of the righteous upon the wicked, of the wise upon the foolish.”

In all the turmoil that surrounds the current state of health care, the corporatization of the process of tending to the sick, the de-personalization of the doctor-patient relationship, let us take pause to reflect upon those doctors and nurses who have shared a portion of their existence with us. They have given of themselves to be at our bedsides, to help heal us in both body and spirit. They are important “squares” of the “patchwork quilt” that we reach for to bring us comfort during some of life’s most trying moments. On behalf of all patients, I extend to you our sincerest thanks. May the Lord draw you close and bring you comfort and hope.

Michele Luckenbaugh is a patient. 

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