It was my first day to meet Jim. He walked in and sat down, a well-appearing middle-aged man. I introduced myself and said I was just going to look at his scan and I would be back to discuss what I saw. In the back room, where patients sometimes wonder what we do I examined his CT-scan. His tumor had wrapped itself around his windpipes. I made a few calls and then walked back into the room and sat in front of Jim. He barely knew me. I had a solemn stare as I walked him through the scan and my fears that this might occlude his breathing pipe soon. I explained in detail that I would like a specialist to perform a procedure to look down his pipe to see if they could give me a better assessment. I also shared that they could do this today. With a trusting tone he agreed to have the procedure done on the same day. Until today I wonder why?
To do this procedure, he had to be placed on a ventilator –a breathing machine. I got a strange call from my specialist. “The procedure went well”, but he explained to me that they could “not remove Jim from the breathing tube”. They were worried if they did this that his lung may collapse, and he was being admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) on a ventilator. I confess this is not the outcome I wanted. This patient came in walking and now was on a breathing machine in the ICU. I finished my clinic and made my way up to the unit to see how he was doing and to think up a plan. This is when I was met with all his family. “Get out of this one” my mind said. It was surreal. Many eyes were staring, asking me questions, wondering who I was and trying to understand why their loved one got instantly sicker after he had met with a doctor for the first time in the clinic.
I was going nowhere; I pulled up a chair, and sat down. I talked to Jim’s family, honestly and with great care and empathy I chose my words. Jim stayed in the ICU for 7 days. During these 7 days, I watched his family’s emotions, their courage, their faith, and their gratitude. As he lay there sedated and intubated, his family made difficult choices for him. Through this tumultuous period we bonded. With their help the tumor shrank with the treatment I had thought would be best. When Jim woke up, he could not remember any of it. His voice was hoarse, he did not know me, did not recall a thing that he went through, could not understand the days that had gone. It was ironic how the diagnosis, the ICU, the procedure and the waiting was an affair of his family and not him.
I have seen many things in my life, but the miracle of a family is something I appreciated that day. I believe the days that Jim could not remember were long and memorable by those who are alive today. To Jim it was a mirage that we could only tell him about never felt or seen, for the family and I it was how we got to know each other.