Relatively speaking, with consideration for the span of a lifetime, the amount of time I get with a patient is rather short. Days, weeks, even months or a year don’t accurately reflect the fullness of a life lived outside the concrete box that is a hospital.
I don’t realize this at the time, really. There’s other things that concern me when they are in the ICU with tubes down their throats. It’s sometimes kind of striking later when you read their obituary and find out they were an avid hedgehog breeder, a rabid hockey fan (with pictures to prove,) or even, in another life and at another time, a hugely important civic personality, a philanthropist, a businessman or woman, or a humanitarian crusader.
It’s easy to lose sight of this. The depth and reality of an entire human life is such an immense time of otherwise indigestible details… it’s inabsorbable, at least in five minutes, or at most, a week or a month or a year. I will never know you as your family or your loved ones know you. I will never know you as you know yourself.
I am, however, quite treated to these little glimmers of what you are as a person. Perhaps it’s your common-law husband, talking to us while you’re comatose, of your philanthropic ventures. Perhaps it’s the name you’ve made for yourself in the community, the fact that the other healthcare professionals responsible for your life know what you’ve done. Perhaps it’s how you treat us, these faceless agents of the system, in how you call us angels and/or assholes. Perhaps it’s even being able to experience you on a daily basis, and to have you declare that you have adopted us as newfound family.
I keep the happy little moments close. Even if things didn’t go as planned. Even if you ended up passing on far before your time. Even if I have to endure the march of family following after your downturn, ensuring with their own eyes that indeed, the truth is real, that you are closer to death than they’d ever want to realize. I like to think about your personalities in the best of times, how you taught, how you advocated for your isolated community that only you cared about, how your wife loves you so much she would be here to watch you struggle even to the detriment of herself.
I won’t pretend that all that I get is positive. Sometimes you’ve been out of jail only long enough for us to declare you dead due to a gang-related incident. Sometimes you have no family, and the only people who see your beauty are those of us tasked with poking you with sharp things and wiping your ass. Sometimes you’re an insufferable asshole, and even your family physician will not at all hesitate in telling us exactly so.
I think the thing that I have most intimately learned in this situation is that I am completely unable to judge a person. All that I get are the tiniest sparks of life, the most washed-out and grainy snapshots of a person. You are something to someone, perhaps everything to everyone, or nothing to no-one.