Today, if you live north of the border, was Canadian Thanksgiving. Most people have their turkey on Sunday night, though, and leave Monday free for digestion and hockey games.
I missed my family Thanksgiving for the third time in as many years; it seems I’m always on hospital call on that holiday. This year I’d arranged my schedule so I could travel to my cousin’s wedding the previous weekend, meaning I had to make up the call on Thanksgiving weekend.
I’m not going to lie, it had been a rough few days. Friday I admitted something like ten patients to the hospital, which doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that each internal medicine consult takes like two hours if you do it right, or if you have to do any on-the-spot reading. So either you half-ass your job, or you don’t sleep. I’m not jaded enough to half-ass it yet.
Saturday, I slept.
Sunday, I was on ward call. Now, for ward call at this particular hospital there’s one resident on for all the internal medicine patients. That’s about 300 patients, several of whom are actively dying at any one time. Ward call, as one of my colleagues put it, “is like going to hell.”
Around dinnertime I was up on the fifth floor, trying to figure out what antibiotics to give to an alcoholic who’d inhaled his own secretions. This 70-something woman came up to the desk, asking if anyone would like a plate of dinner. I took a glance at the plate, and realized it looked a damn sight better than any hospital food I’ve ever seen before. Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, carrots, and cranberry sauce. And gravy.
I asked if she’d brought this from home, and she confirmed that impression. Her husband wasn’t going to eat his home-cooked dinner today, and she wondered if the nice young doctor would like to have it instead? Considering I hadn’t eaten anything but coffee and vending machine Mars bars all day, I gladly accepted. I did have to ask, however, why her husband wasn’t going to finish it, and if he was OK if I had it.
“Oh,” she said, “I’d brought this turkey to give to him, but they put a tube down his throat to help him breathe today, so he can’t eat. We didn’t want it to go to waste.” I’m still amazed she said this without tears in her eyes. She assured me it was all right, and walked back to her husband’s room, leaving me standing there flabbergasted with a plate of delicious turkey in my hands.
It amazes me sometimes how well people are able to maintain their humanity in the face of the indignities perpetuated by old age, infirmity, and the health care system. And if I’m thankful for anything today, it’s that. Happy Thanksgiving.