By Lindsay Heuser
(May 2014) “You know, he’s really upset with you for interrupting his sorbet earlier.”
I looked up from my computer and realized that the ICU nurse was addressing me.
“What? You mean, Mr. G?”
“Yeah, he’s not happy about what you did this morning.”
I stared at her, somewhat dumbfounded.
G was the team “peach,” as my intern dubbed him, a man with disdain
running through his veins and a tongue sharper than a razor’s edge. He
was a long-term alcoholic with pitting edema, a belly more distended
than the tightest of drums and a disposition like an icicle. He made no
attempts to hide his dislike of our team, and of the hospital at large.
He rolled his eyes, and spoke in terse utterances—complain, complain,
complain. He was uncomfortable and angry. You did not have to be around
Mr. G long to understand that this was a man with a lifetime of regrets.
This was a man at his very end.
Of course, Mr. G was my patient.
For some reason I thought that if I just treaded lightly, all would be
well. I have always been easy to get along with, after all. I would
smile and be courteous in my interactions and he would tolerate me, the
annoying medical student who made him repeat exams when he didn’t feel
like doing it. That sounded reasonable, right? Not too much to ask. For
the first couple of days after his admission, all seemed to be going
well. He grumbled at me when I came in during the mornings, but did
But now he was upset with me? Because of sorbet?
Because I had requested that he stop eating his lemon sorbet for a
minute while I listen to his heart and lungs?
I pondered the
situation for a minute. I hadn’t even thought twice about it when I made
the request. I did my usual song and dance: smiled and said,
“It’ll only be for a minute. I promise!” I did my exam and left the
room, thinking nothing of it. Was I being insensitive? Was he being
ridiculous? What was this? I’d never upset a patient before. I don’t
Then a resident approached me, “So I heard about
Mr. G and the sorbet. You really shouldn’t worry about it. He’s an old,
cranky man. I promise it’s not you. It’s him. Forget about it.”
later that afternoon I read a note that Palliative Care had left after
visiting Mr. G, halting when I saw the phrase “lemon sorbet” toward the
end. I moved in closer to the computer.
“The patient requests that he be allowed to eat his lemon sorbet without any interruptions from his health care team.”
paused. Now the entire palliative care team knew about my lemon sorbet
incident? Uninterrupted lemon sorbet was one of his final requests? I
was embarrassed. I was angry. I was upset. Had I been pushy when
requesting that he put down his sorbet? I suppose that I could have come
back a few minutes after he had finished eating, but I was in a rush to
get done with my pre-rounding.
I had sacrificed his comfort on
behalf of my stubborn determination to accomplish my morning tasks.
Efficiency, after all, is the name of the game in medicine. Succumbing
to the lemon sorbet demand and sacrificing efficiency is not part of
the list of competencies that traditionally earns you honors.
was something more to this. Mr. G was at the end of his life and simply
wanted to be treated with respect. It had all seemed so silly to me,
this big fuss over sorbet; of course that’s easy to think when you’re 26
and death isn’t nipping at your heels. Lemon sorbet is a thing to be
had next summer, some other summer. Mr. G had no more summers.
dared to presume that I understood the value of lemon sorbet in a man’s
life and equated it with my own. Who really knows what memories a lemon
sorbet can hold? It could be an entire lifetime’s worth. All I had to
do was ask and listen.
I stepped away from my computer. Humility
is a big part of doctoring. Much bigger than I could have ever
imagined. I strode over to Mr. G’s room. I paused. Swallowing my pride, I
knocked on the door and walked into the room. I spotted the empty lemon
sorbet carton out of the corner of my eye.
“Mr. G,” I began, “I’d like to apologize ….”
Lindsay Heuser is a member of the Class of 2015 at the School of Medicine. She
is originally from Colorado Springs and earned a BA in chemistry from
Bowdoin College. She plans to pursue a career in psychiatry. This essay
originally appeared in The Human Touch, a journal of poetry, prose and
visual art by students, faculty and staff on the Anschutz Medical
You can read her work Heartbeat: A Poem in Three Parts →