Tag Archives: Sadness

Faultlines

For a long time, I wore a jade bangle. It was a part of my arm, part of me. It had threads of deep and lighter green, red-browns, and specks of white. In Chinese culture, jade has a particular energy and significance, and the jade bangle is believed to protect the wearer.

I was walking home from work one day when my bangle broke in two places. I didn’t notice it break because largest part of the curve stayed on my wrist. I wondered what it had protected me from – a breakage is supposed to represent an escape, a dodged bullet. I retraced my steps and found the missing piece.

I liked that bangle, even though I detest the word ‘bangle’. Something in that stone – its colour, its weight, our shared warmth, a vibration – it resonated with me. It fit.

So carefully, I glued it back together. I let it set. It broke again, in different places. This time I let it stay that way, until the night before my med school interview. Glueing it together, I superglued my thumb… but that is another story. I wore it. It broke again.

All the time I was doing this it I knew it was a futile exercise. The circle was broken. The milk had been spilt. The nature of the thing had changed.

Some things mend themselves. Fracture a bone and the faultlines heal stronger than they started. Slice your hand open and bit by bit the fabric of your muscle and skin will knit itself together until you barely see the scar.

But some things are just broken. They start off broken, they break before their time, or they were always meant to break. No matter how neatly you glue the handle on the teacup, if the porcelain is truly crazed with faultlines there is no fixing it.

Sometimes the nature of the thing has changed for the better, sometimes for the worse, or not at all.

Some things can be fixed. But some things, some people, relationships, lives – some are so riddled with faultlines they are broken, just broken, always broken. They can mend, but they have to mend themselves.

And that is nobody’s fault.

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The Seventh Dwarf

I was sitting in a consultation room having just taken a brief history from a new patient. New to us, anyway. Not new to him – he had been referred to our team with his fourth recurrence of a particularly fickle malignancy. He’d been treated further afield, but this time decided he didn’t want the travel. Cynically, I wondered if his specialists had flicked us a literal hospital pass.

He needs a name. Let’s call him Mr Sherrin.

He was our last patient of the day. I took a good history. Talked with his wife. Had a look at the problem. It was pretty bad. Ugly, obvious, fast-growing, metastases all over the place. Disfiguring.

I handed over to the consultant. He and the registrar came back to the consult room and we all had another look and a feel and the consultant talked about treatment options. Cures are off the table, this is palliation. The treatment might slow things down or make them worse.

Mr Sherrin is not young but he’s not old either. Mrs Sherrin is visibly anxious but Mr Sherrin is quite calm. He wants to give it all he’s got. There is no hesitation as he opts for treatment.

I was watching the consultant, talking, feeling the lumps, asking questions of the Sherrins and the consultant. I wondered, for the umpteenth time, how oncologists deal with the daily load of poor prognoses. Who drinks? Who swims? Who prays? Who kicks the cat? Who washes their hands at the end of the day and leaves all the work in the sink?

Somewhere in amongst all this, Mr Sherrin and I had a long moment of eye contact. We knew what we knew. As that moment passed, I felt a rising tide of grumpiness.

Cue lightbulb.

I’m not welling up and I genuinely, honestly, don’t feel sad. I feel grumpy. Not about anything, or toward anyone.

I’m not angry with death, and I’m not afraid of it or uncomfortable around it. I know, and I feel, that I’m not part of the life and death stories around me any more than a flight attendant is part of a traveler’s holiday.

Something in the way I’m emotionally and intellectually processing what I’ve learned and experienced on this rotation is producing a consistent response, because that grumpiness has been here pretty much every night for a month.

I guess I shall stomp off somewhere soon and get my head read. Come up with a better plan. Life is not a Disney movie, but Grumpy is no way to be.

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Grief

If the computer screen were a piece of paper, this post would be full of words crossed out and half-written sentences.

I’m not one to memorialise a person electronically. Something that has become clear to me recently is that when you die, everyone wants a piece of you. Everyone wants you to be remembered the way they remember you. Those little pieces of yourself, fragments you left with everyone you met, those memories, thoughts, arguments, laughter, a lifetime of experiences and feelings – that’s what you leave behind. People will hold on to those fragments as if to keep you alive. You are recreated in a kaleidoscope of other people’s memories.

It’s a month to the day since my last post. While I was writing it, a friend was busy dying.

This is not a eulogy. I don’t want you to imagine him the way I remember him. I don’t want to laud his achievements or camouflage his flaws. I don’t want to talk about potential.

Some stars burn so, so brightly.

It doesn’t matter how we knew him, or how we remember him, or if we knew him at all. What matters is what we learn and how we grow.

As future doctors, we need to find our peace with death, or it will haunt us all our days.

Nothing worth doing is easy: Learn to stand and look grief in the eye.

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