This is another one of those true stories that animates the field of narrative medicine. It wrote itself just this past week:
As I gathered up my rosary and prayer book at the end of Mass on Christmas eve, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I turned around to see one of my former patients there, looking half apologetic, half overjoyed at having captured my attention. I hadn’t seen the woman for years—not since I walked her through the evaluation and treatment of breast cancer when she had just turned forty.
After I retired from medical practice I thought of her often…every time a friend or former patient or family member started down that same path. So, I asked her how she was. I asked about her health. The good news was the fact that she had beaten back her cancer. But her smile vanished when she told me she had recently lost her husband. From vascular disease. Little by little.
She told me about the ulcer on his toe that wouldn’t heal. How gangrene set in, forcing his surgeon to amputate the toe. How the surgical site failed to heal, forcing him to amputate the leg. How the same problem developed in her husband’s other leg, until he lost it, too. Over a period of several year she lost her husband limb by limb. Bit by bit.
I can’t bear to think how he suffered knowing there was no cure in sight for him. The finest medical care meant nothing more than torture and then death to this man. No one was coming to save him…not the finest doctor, not a Navy Seal, not even a Papal blessing. I hate to imagine his unending pain as he surrendered his body again and again to the knife. Helpless. Devoid of hope. There were no redeeming plot twists in his story. No happy ending. No lessons to be learned.Yet, this is a story I will never forget.
This is how stories write themselves. Someone taps you on the shoulder and life is never the same again.