By Vishnupriya Krishnan
(May 2018) I remember the day her family brought her in, from their village
several miles away, because rain was falling so thickly outside that it
looked like a curtain. The medics laid her down on one of the beds in
the trauma room, and immediately the doctors began rolling up her
sleeves to poke for veins. Her wrinkled skin was dotted by so many
different colors of lesions that it looked as though Monet’s water
lilies were blooming on her swollen belly, but her face was young and
bright, like the moon. She must not have been more than thirteen.
“This is something you’ll never see in the States,” the doctor said to
me, “An advanced case of tuberculosis.” I wrapped the blood pressure
cuff around her emaciated arm, slid the pulse oximeter onto her limp
index finger, while medical students and residents swarmed around her,
whispering words like “critical” and “fascinating,” and then her eyes,
previously fluttering with delirium, flickered open and looked straight
Her pain hit me like a thunderclap. She squeezed my hand
white as a medical student struggled to insert a catheter for the first
time. I thought of the sacrifices patients’ bodies endure for us to
learn so much, and I squeezed back.
I smoothed her hair away from
her sweaty forehead. I don’t remember exactly what I said to her –
phrases like “cavitary lesions” and “hematogenous spread” were buzzing
around in my head – but I told her she was brave, that everything would
be okay. The doctors put more lines in and she looked at me and squeezed
my hand some more.
Later that day, I came back to sit with her.
Faint anguished whispers escaped her mouth. From the smell in the room,
I could tell that she had soiled her sheets. The medical students and
doctors were at the next trauma bed, for an elderly man with pesticide
poisoning had been brought in, and no X-rays could be taken for our
patient anyway until it stopped raining, for the imaging building was
across the street.
I lifted each of her legs slowly – each
movement was excruciating – and slid the dirty sheet out from underneath
her, averting my eyes to siphon away some of the shame, replacing the
bedding with a fresh sheet. When I had finished, her face was wet with
tears. That evening, she was wheeled to the ICU – the last time I would
I had complained about the language barrier over dinner a
couple nights ago with my friends, how it was difficult to learn about
patients beyond the few sentences and lab values we read in their
charts. But this pain in my patient’s cracked lips and brimming eyes I
understood. I understood.
I understood, too, the pain that comes
with witnessing pure suffering without knowing how to predict the
outcome. Patients come into our lives and leave footprints on our
hearts, and we are never the same for it. Maybe part of being a healer
is simply committing to being a witness. Listening to your patient.
their hand. Journeying with them across the uncharted waters of their illness. Affirming their human dignity.
Krishnan, a second-year medical student, wrote this essay for the
“Literature, Art and Medicine” elective. She is on the editorial board
of The Human Touch, an anthology of poetry, prose, photography and
graphic art from the Anschutz Medical Campus community.