It was a mundane day at the Pulmonary Office of the PHC. Dr. Joselito Chavez came to the office, as I was about to have my second caffeine fix. In between shuffling through my census and making a mental note of all his patients, I was barely listening to him when he said, “Tecel, you remember Dr. Zano’s son?” I shook my head and began to wonder where this conversation would lead. “He was admitted at National Kidney and Transplant Institute for fever and had sudden cardiac death”. I froze in my seat while he started narrating the events that happened. He was 17 and barely out of his cocoon.
It’s odd how doctors deal with sickness and death. They don’t have faces and names, stories to tell, achievements to celebrate, just ICU bed numbers, diagnosis and laboratory results. We tend to be detached and mechanical, oblivious to families grieving as death looms around the corner. All of us, I think, are guilty of that at one point of our training until it happens to someone you know or worst someone in the family, and then it grabs you by the neck reminding you of your mortality.
Events of the past year started rushing back to me, vivid like it was only yesterday. I knew how they felt; dealing with the shock, initial angst, questioning and finally accepting. I’ve been there, done that, but I was still lucky.
I was thirty and thriving, everything was where it should be. Life was good...or so I thought. I was thousands of miles away from home, ready to begin another chapter in my medical life when I received a call one bitter Sunday morning. Prematurely awaken from a blissful sleep; I was annoyed at this early caller until I realize that it was my husband. I don’t know why but I knew something was up, my head was pounding, my heart was racing, it felt like a supraventricular tachycardia setting in. A distant voice greeted me at the opposite line. He was hesitant, his words carefully chosen. “Mom’s at the hospital, asthma attack.” he said. I asked him when mom would be discharged thinking it was an ordinary attack. A deafening silence, it probably lasted a few seconds but it felt a lifetime to me until he dropped the bombshell. ”She’s on mechanical ventilatory support”. I couldn’t exactly understand some of the words he was saying because it seemed so surreal. My mom was a vibrant woman in her sixties, involved in all sorts of activities, family, medical and social work kept her in good shape. She would even beat me to gym where I would be huffing and puffing on the treadmill, close to experiencing a Killip 4, she, on the other hand, would breeze through, not a hair out of place. She had a severe asthma attack, and eventually suffered hypoxic encephalopathy from intractable seizures I later found out.
The trip home, an oxymoron, was the longest and shortest trip I have ever experienced. I wanted to fly home and catch her alive, tell her the things I should have told her when it mattered. I braced for the inevitable but how can you prepare yourself for something that you think is remotely impossible? Her face was ashen, her body edematous, I almost didn’t recognize my mom as her chest would rise and fall with every pump of the ventilator. It was the lowest point in my life, and I found myself at the other end, that next of kin waiting anxiously for the attending’s rounds, for an ounce of hope. And luckily, she pulled it off.
A life of immobility, she is blind and mute as well after that fateful day in July. Time was the key element in acceptance. But a paradigm shift was also happening for us. Communication seemed a formidable task but she is still able to express herself. Sans her gift of gab, her role as a wife, mother and grandmother was fulfilled by her mere physical presence; her tiny effort to move and raise her head, a slight nod, we embraced and celebrated these little things like the monumental walk in the moon. Clearly, she was dancing to a different beat and we were in step too. And life still goes on for her. . . .and for us. . .
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