How do you tell one of your best friends that his dad may have an incurable brain tumor?

It was the morning of the last trauma shift during my surgery rotation. It was a seemingly normal early Sunday morning. However, when I arrived in the trauma charting room, there was no one to be found. After placing my coffee and protein bar down next to a computer, another medical student walked in, and he looked just as puzzled as I was at the sight of an empty room.

“Where is everyone?” he asked.

“I just got here a few seconds ago and haven’t seen anyone yet,” I replied.

“Huh, that’s weird,” he mumbled.

As I turned around and walked toward the large plexiglass barrier that enclosed the charting room, I looked across the hall and saw multiple people surrounding a patient in the trauma resuscitation room.

“Let’s go! I think they are running a code,” I yelled over to my friend. We immediately ran over to help. They were indeed running a code on a patient who was just brought in after a motor vehicle crash. Within seconds of strapping on personal protective equipment, I subbed in for the nurse that was doing chest compressions.

After nearly 30 minutes without any return of signs of life, our faculty trauma surgeon called the time of death. A tear ran down my face and fell onto my scrubs, adding to the concoction of sweat and blood that had stained them during the code. The looks of exhaustion and devastation filled the faces of all members of our team as we began removing our personal protective equipment and returning back to the charting room.

After such a demanding first hour of the shift, I would never have anticipated that possibly my biggest challenge of the day had yet to come. Walking out of the locker room, I felt my phone buzzing from the back pocket of my fresh new pair of scrubs. Excited to see the name and picture of one of my groomsmen light up the screen, I eagerly answered the call on my walk back. Blinded by the excitement to briefly catch up with one of my best friends, I failed to notice the fact that my friend, who lives several time zones away, was calling at approximately five in the morning.

“My brother! It is so great to hear from you. What’s going on?” I said.

“Hey man, do you have a minute to talk?” he asked.

“Sure buddy, I am in the hospital, but I’m walking back from the locker room, so I have a few minutes,” I replied.

“Well, we are over at the hospital with my dad right now. He had been acting a little off over the past few days. Then, my mom noticed that his face looked a little droopy and thought that he might be having a stroke, so she brought him to the ER,” he explained.

“Oh my gosh, how is he doing? Have they found out anything else?” I asked.

“Yeah man, his scan didn’t show any strokes, but they found something else that they think is a brain tumor,” he said. “I think it’s something called a glioblastoma, have you heard of that?” he asked.

“Yes, yes, I have,” I sheepishly answered as the hairs on my arms began to rise, and a chill ran down my body.

“What does it mean? What do you know about it?” he asked. We went on to talk for about five minutes before he abruptly thanked me and said that he had to go because the surgeons had come out to talk before taking his dad back to the operating room.

How do you tell one of your best friends that his dad may have an incurable brain tumor? I didn’t want to believe it. Maybe the doctors were mistaken. What do I tell him? How much do I say? Thoughts and questions like these raced through my mind right when I heard that one word, glioblastoma. Shortly after the call, tears flooded my eyes as I continued my walk back to the trauma pit.

As time goes by, I think back to that morning often. It is a day that I will never forget; the memory is so distinct. I am so honored and thankful that my friend trusted and believed in me enough to call me during such an incredibly scary, uncertain time for him and his family. I hope I said the right things. I hope I didn’t upset him. I hope I didn’t say something that I shouldn’t have. I hope I lived up to the expectations that gave him the confidence to call me in the first place.

Justin Koceja is a medical student.

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