Here is my column in today’s Greenville News.  The link is below, followed by the text of the column.

‘Wearing others’ suffering’

One of the things that grabbed me, shook me and changed my life occurred many years ago when I was in medical school at West Virginia University.  It happened when I was a first year student.  At that point, I barely had any idea what doctors did.  I only knew that 1) mom said I’d be good at being one 2) it required me to spend a large amount of time dissecting a human body and reading about the way that body functioned and 3) late at night, even formaldehyde doesn’t spoil the taste of pizza.

Because we were all relatively ignorant of the path we had chosen, we were given the opportunity to spend some of our free time watching actual physicians practice medicine.  It seemed like a great opportunity to look up from the Grant’s Anatomy text, so I elected to go to the emergency room.  Late one night, in the old emergency department of WVU Hospital, I was trying to learn something (but stay out of the way) when EMS crashed through the door.

On their stretcher was a young man who was bleeding from his neck.  In fact, he was bleeding from both sides of his neck.  He had been at a local ‘watering hole’ when he suddenly dropped to the ground and started hemorrhaging.  No one was really certain if he had been stabbed or shot.

It was largely academic.  He had two holes, one on each side of his neck.  And when one stopped apply pressure to said neck, blood shot to the ceiling in two ruby-colored arcs in a macabre imitation of some lovely Italian fountain.

I was one of the people holding pressure.  Once, shocked, I stepped back and the blood spewed more.  The senior surgical resident screamed at me to hold more pressure and back I went, pushing against the neck of the young man dying before us.

Ultimately he went to surgery.  I never learned what happened to him.  My suspicion was that he died.  While he was still in the ER, we learned that someone had been shooting at the outside wall of the bar and the bullet passed inside, accidentally hitting him.  Apparently, the bullet clipped both carotid arteries in its brief, tragic transit of his neck.

Next morning, I walked home in the cool, damp air, covered in blood.  It was on my shirt, my pants, worked into the hair on my arms.  I was baptized in blood.  And despite the modern horror of blood-born diseases, I was too young and stupid to care.   (HIV was only a distant rumor, and Hepatitis B and C not nearly as common as now).  All that intensity, and the remnants of it that stained my clothes, left me exhilarated.  I had been a part of something, however terrible, that connected me to the life and pain of the world.

Since that night, I have breathed my share of partially metabolized alcohol, exhaled from the faces of intoxicated patients. I have had pneumonia twice, so doubtless I have shared bacteria with other humans, probably also exhaled in the emergency department where I work.

Drained abscesses have spilled on me.  Babies have vomited on me (my own children not least).  I have been inadvertently stuck by needles.  I have worn more blood, from trauma victims now my own responsibility.  I have listened to the screams of the grief-stricken and the last breaths of the dying.  I have tried to understand the incomprehensible gibberish of the schizophrenic.  I have had successes and made mistakes.  And in all of it, through all of it, I have become closer and closer to my own humanity, and to the rich depth of every human life I am privileged to encounter.

I don’t regret my immersion in the lives of my patients, however much it has required bleach and a shower.  Because we can only love well by knowing the people we hope to love. And that usually means taking risks and getting very, very dirty.

It’s a metaphor for all of our loves, really.  If we love our children, we’ll clean their messes and breathe their viruses.  If we love our spouses, we’ll give them a kidney, hold their hair over the toilet, or stay up all night just ‘to talk,’ if that’s what they want.  If we love our patients, we’ll expose ourselves to their diseases.  See, no matter who we love, we’ll eventually have to wear some of their suffering ourselves.

And bleach may not clean it up.

Edwi n

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