A Doctor's War

This room is the antechamber to the after-death. Not for everyone, of course, but for many of my patients, this room is the last they occupy in this life. Four simple white walls, cheap linoleum tile, and this creaky, plastic-covered mattress beneath me are the last trappings of this world.

This room's last occupant was Lucy Johnson. I cannot say much for the woman, except for the scanty details offered by her medical history and the numerous bouquets that brightened the usually-dismal hospital room over the past weeks. She was only forty years old when she died, but every day, she was surrounded by visitors and family who stayed by her side.

Now, the room is empty. Lucy Emilie Johnson is gone, and the flowers that brought joy to a dying woman now bring solace to those who mourn her death.

The plastic crackles as I shift my seat on the stiff mattress. It's the only sound in this room; even the mechanical beeping is gone. There's no heart to monitor, no labored breaths to count. It encourages a certain amount of contemplation, the silence does.

I decided when I was five years old that I wanted to be a doctor.

Back then, I hardly recognized the magnitude of that decision. To a five-year-old boy, there is a sort of grim fascination, some perverse glamor with the gore of unfurled innards. It's the same wonder that attracted me to the disemboweled bodies of frogs that the family dog left on the threshold. Whatever it was, I wanted to know about it.

In high school, I was overwhelmed by complexity of the human body. The intricate web of channels and canals, the careful regulation of processes and reactions—they were equally fascinating to me. I was a self-glorified nerd with all the trappings—thick-rimmed glasses and button-down shirts with pockets, which I did not use to store pens, thank you very much. My eagerness to learn only seemed to confirm my early decision. I was destined to be a doctor.

I endured through college, through each biology class that introduced the minute mechanisms of the human body with convoluted names and step-by-step summaries. Droning professors brought life to the unseen processes that govern our lives. This was my introduction to the all-nighter, and I spent many blurry mornings with lukewarm coffee, a thick textbook, and my scribbled short-hand notes as my only companions. I spent my days with chemical processes and obscure compounds dancing through my head.

When I reached medical school, the human body had been reduced to a finely-tuned machine, a mass of cells compiled into tissues and arranged into organs, each differentiated and specialized for their fated function.

What I had almost forgotten, though, what that little five-year-old never considered was the soul. And that was the one beast I was never trained to face, never taught to appreciate.

I spent my educational career reducing humanity to a series of chemical processes and electrical impulses—a knot of cells with a smattering of instinct thanks to natural selection. There is a certain wonder to the way the body works, but the soul—the soul is where the magic happens, where humanity earns its salt.

The human body is a vessel for that magnificent mind that houses the soul. I never imagined the way my patients could touch my own.

As an advocate of life, I am death's constant companion. Too often, I am the only audience to my patients' finest hour when their bravery and strength of will are revealed against the darkest enemy they will ever face. Death is knit into the fabric of this universe, but knowledge of that demise is uniquely human. I have seen grown men crumple with sobbing; I have seen little old ladies with the fortitude of a stone monument. We each react differently when the illusion of immortality fades.

In my old age, I've become a sort of philosopher. After all, I cannot treat the body without touching upon what that vessel houses. And one cannot touch the soul and come away unchanged.

Such a multi-faceted creature the mind is. No wonder some men spend their entire lives contemplating it. Day after day, I bear witness to it—to the dreams, fears, and hopes of men.

Hope is a fickle friend and a crueler master. If I could, I would have abandoned it long ago. I prefer the numbness of apathy.

It's infectious, though, when you see it day after day in the eyes the patient and their families, or even worse, the growing intensity, the begging in the eyes of their loved ones as the life fades from the patient's eyes. Lucy Johnson received life-threatening injuries in a car accident involving a drunk driver. Every day, her husband was by her side. Every day, he was by my side, asking about the bleeding that was putting pressure against her swelling brain. Each day, my prognosis was the same. Every day, resignation replaced hope in his face.

I am the giver and the destroyer of hope, and I keep none for myself. Because I am the bearer of the truth.

I do not pretend to be hope's master. I bear the scars of the scourging of that cruel beast, the emotional scars. My heart ached for the bright-eyed little boy who hovered by his mother's hospital bed—the little boy with his father's face but his mother's eyes. The same eyes that opened so rarely in those last day. He was five years old when she died. What would he remember of her?

A five-year-old knows so little of life. Perhaps my decision was hasty, but I have never regretted it.

The doctor serves the body, and that body is doomed from the first breath.

I take a breath and can almost taste the chemical scent of alcohol in the air. So sterile, so antiseptic, so contrary to what life is.

Perhaps I am just another victim of hope's vicious toying. After all, I dare to hope that I can make a difference, that I can spare at least a few from death and pain. But if the price of that battle is only that I am called a fool, then it is one worth raging. We must all someday board Charon's ferry, submit to God's judgment or to the eternal darkness and unawareness that awaits us in the beyond, but until then I will fight death. And some days, I will claim hope as my friend, others as my most dire enemy.

My pager vibrates against my hip. In the hallway, a scratchy, mechanical voice calls for me over the hospital intercom. The metal railing is cold to the touch as I stand up. My brief escape is over. Before I leave, I glance out the window into the dark morning outside. It's probably a little before three—the dead of night. Eventually, the sun will peak over that eastern horizon.

I brush aside the thoughts of Lucy Johnson and the vestiges of my thoughts of death. It is time to return to the battlefield with hope at my side, for better or for worse.


Written for the Review Game's August Writing Contest Challenge.