A note to the patient who came to the emergency department alone

By: Zoe Cross, MD

I didn’t know what was wrong with you, despite having asked you all my questions
except the one I reserve for when you may have the answer I cannot:
what do you think is wrong?
you looked at me and said
(quietly, steadily, simply)
everything
and I couldn’t disagree.

I could see there was a problem in your abdomen – a problem
our antibiotics and fluids and oxygen would not likely fix.
I ordered them anyway.
I called the surgeon.
I listened, again, to your heart—
someTHING wrong someTHING wrong someTHING wrong, it whispered—
and then I asked you, what do you think we should do?
you looked at me and said
(quietly, steadily, simply)
nothing
and I couldn’t disagree.

Still, we hoped you were wrong.
We ordered more fluids, more tests,
practiced more medicine,
tried to make you better—
until you looked at me and said
(quietly, simply, with tears this time)
can’t I die now

This I will remember long after I have forgotten your name, your age, your history of present illness:
my hand on your shoulder, your gaze holding mine, the incessant beeping of the monitor now a background symphony,
both of us quiet,
both of us waiting,
neither of us certain for what.

Zoe Cross, MD, is a third-year resident in the Division of Family Medicine in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine in Salt Lake City, UT. Her medical areas of interest include global health, palliative care, and childhood obesity prevention.


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