Friday, November 18, 2016

what's the use in worrying about the ways in which the world might come to end

You can't tell me how to feel.

Today, I told a man, and his very large family, that the man had esophageal cancer. They knew that, but I told them the even more horrific news that the cancer had spread to his liver. I have been having conversations like these for the past five years, maybe even slightly longer. Somehow, even when I was a medical student, maybe because I was older than my colleagues, I was often the designated hitter for these gloomy talks. Once, when I was an intern, the other intern on my team confessed to me that she didn't have it in her to help a family as they transitioned their mother to comfort measures, meaning our ICU team would take her off the breathing machine that was keeping her going, and give her medications to make her comfortable. Here's the thing- the other intern was a white woman, and that patient was an old Chinese woman. And that other intern said, "I just don't feel comfortable" and I gave in to her, because the patient was the important one in all of this.

But you can't tell me how to feel. I felt a certain kind of way about that entitled white woman. I did my job and I did what was best, but I did not forget.

It's been a hard time, recently, with everything that has gone on in this country for the past year, and also in my own personal and professional life. There have been a lot of things that have led me to feel both this deep despair about where it's all headed, and also a profound gratitude for my insignificance, for my quite bearable lightness of being at present, childless, husband-less, and in some ways even orphaned.

Still, whenever I've felt bad, whenever it's all going wrong, from the time that I was 18 years old, and this is the very honest truth, I've gone back to the work, and it's healed me. At one point, it was in a hood with starting materials and solvents and stir bars. At another, it was just reading science journals in a library. Last weekend, it was writing a manuscript. Today, it was a difficult conversation with a patient and his family.

A few others have mentioned feeling right back like they did after that day in 2001. I've felt that way. I never felt so divided from those around me. Even in my very own house, which I shared with two white roommates. I was hurting too. All I wanted was to hug my roommates but we weren't feeling the same way about things. They were watching news coverage on an endless loop and like so many people around me, they were hushing any notion of dissent. Even though I grew up in a very homogeneous, white-as-snow part of the country, it wasn't until that day that I really felt with finality- these will never be my people. To this day, that feeling has haunted me. I never wanted to feel that way, never wanted to believe that to be true, and I consider it incredibly sad that I do feel that still at times. Fifteen years later, I thought maybe I had been wrong; maybe the dark chapter was behind us. Especially here, in my comfortable bubble of inclusivity in this very blue state.

But I haven't felt that way for the past week. And you can't tell me how to feel.

I have treated patients who have commiserated with me about politics - some of them have told me about their leanings unprompted. I have treated patients who have come into the clinic wearing NRA hats. I have treated patients who have asked me, while chuckling, knowing they are trying to say something discomfiting, if I have seen a video that brings to question whether the First Lady is, in fact, a woman. I have treated patients who have called me "honey," have characterized me as a nurse. I have treated patients who have openly made terrible comments about minorities. I once treated a patient who had swastikas liberally tattooed all over his body. I have treated a lot of other patients too; it's been a lot of years.

I used to walk into any patient encounter with a blank slate, with the benefit of the doubt. But you can't tell me how to feel, and I can't be quite so magnanimous right now.

So I sat down with this patient today. He and his very large family, a white family from a rural area, and I wondered, for a moment, what they thought of me, if they would be happier were it a white doctor breaking this news to them. It was only for a fleeting second that I pondered it, and then I shook the thought out of my head, and gave them this very bad news, and it did not matter who they were, nor did it matter who I was, not in a superficial sense. What mattered is they were collectively a patient and his family, and that I was a doctor. I told them the bad news, and they didn't yell out "wrong!" and they didn't dispute my words as being liberal propaganda. I told them facts, and they heard them. Some places are still sacred, it turns out. Some places are still bipartisan.

We sat there, and I told them the news that I did not want to tell them, the news they did not want to hear, and they told me how beloved the patient, this man, was. As they were slowly starting to absorb the unacceptable truth, the patient's brother, a teacher, looked up at me and said, "this is some rough job you have."

I replied, "some days, it really is." It was then I really got a look at his eyes, and it turns out they were sincerely kind. You can't tell me how I feel, and it will take me a long, long time, and maybe an eternity will not be long enough to feel a true sense of comraderie, togetherness, patriotism.

I'm reminded of these words that were sandwiched into a funny (funny because it's disturbingly true) bit that Amber Ruffin did for Late Night with Seth Meyers (she's a writer for the show, which has really found its footing in the last months):
But then you realize that by doing what you do everyday, you prove to them that you are unstoppable. They can spend their time trying to pass laws that take away your rights and silence your voice. But all you have to do is live your life right in their faces, and it proves that you cannot be stopped.
So I am relying heavily on work, and I am hoping others are too, in particular those folks that do the very good and true work of journalism and community organizing. And I am hoping those are not the last kind eyes I see from the other side.

1 comment:

pied piper said...

This piece is everything.