My Father, the Patient

by Gary Blanchard, MD

Resident Finalist for the 2006 Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Award

My father lay on the bed, pale, looking like a wounded octopus. Wires and needles twisted and snarled around him. He was tired. Eerily calm.

In the other room, nurses talked in hushed tones – their backs turned. Dueling monitors beeped and blipped, vying for someone’s attention.

But dad was content just sipping his complimentary ginger ale – outwardly oblivious to his newfound starring role in the ER.

A little after 3 a.m., a doctor emerged from behind the curtain. “Well, Mr. Blanchard, looks like you’re having a heart attack,” he stated, plainly, matter-of-factly.

My eyes welled and my thoughts flooded. Someone tied my stomach into a double sheepshank – and yanked. Rage quickly brought my blood to a boil. The doctor had just given his life-altering diagnosis the same way I’d order the luncheon special.

“Well, looks like I’ll go with the ham on rye today.”

“Well, Mr. Blanchard, looks like you’re having a heart attack.”

My father just nodded.

Forget about cats and dogs, entire kennels fell from the sky. The hurricane-force winds blew our tent off the ground. I was cold and wanted to go home. So I went to my father’s tent and shined my flashlight in his face. Only his tighty whities covered him. He looked mad and muttered some words I’d heard before on the playground.

Around 5:30 a.m., the paramedics whisked my father from Winchester Hospital to New England Medical Center. I drove my mother and little sister to NEMC, the teaching hospital where I was set to begin medical school in two weeks.

Doctors and nurses talk differently to a heart attack victim’s son when he is also on the cusp of medical school. They assume you know things about “thrombolytics” and “left anterior descending arteries.” They assume you know just what the heck is going on.

But all I heard was the phrase “possibly considerable” heart damage. What I heard was that my dad would’ve died if he didn’t have the angioplasty that hour.

The boy who couldn’t field and couldn’t run was suddenly the center of attention. I was pitching a gem. My teammates were cheering my name. But I got a little too excited, jerking my George Brett-signed glove up toward my mouth – wedging my buckteeth and braces firmly in the webbing. Ready to pee my pants any moment, I looked on top of the hill for the familiar blue station wagon.

My father stabilized around 8 a.m. The doctors said the procedure went well – but it was still too soon to know the full extent of the damage. But they reassured us what they were saying was good news.

My grandmother rode shotgun, cringing and covering her eyes. My father bellowed our drill-sergeant instructions from the back. He reduced me to tears as I drove around the rotary, somehow cheating death in the process. He barked at my no-handed steering.

Orientation to medical school was full of nicetomeetchyas and plenty of chances to buy brand name stethoscopes (and ophthalmoscopes I never learned how to use). Pediatricians, nephrologists, deans, police officers, multicultural experts – everyone had advice for the 168 aspiring doctors in the room.

But, for me, the image of a dying parent was more meaningful than any words spoken, more compelling than any modern Hippocratic oath taken. My father’s five day stay at NEMC was infinitely more powerful than my five day orientation staged by Tufts Medical School.

It’s an experience I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. But I don’t think I could have really appreciated the enormous responsibilities I was about to undertake until I actually watched, hands firmly in pockets, as the doctors and nurses saved my father’s life.

For a doctor, patients come and go – a whirlwind turnstile of “cases.” But for the patient, the few moments spent with the doctor are often immortalized in their memories. I try now to remember that every patient I admit is someone’s son, someone’s daughter – even if, to me, that person is maybe the 100th heart attack I’ve seen, now halfway through my residency. Someone – somewhere, somehow – loves the person hopped up on my examining table or prone on our trademarked unflattering gurneys.

That patient might have pitched a tent for his 11-year-old son in the middle of a hurricane – in nothing but his soaked Fruit of the Looms. Maybe that person gestured to his 8-year-old son from afar how to calmly, suavely yank his baseball glove from the clutches of his buckteeth. Or maybe that patient even taught his 16-year-old son how to drive – hour after hour, day after day – despite being gravely afraid for his life.

And that patient might have so talked up his son that – only a few hours after walking from a nearly fatal heart attack – nearly every doctor, nurse, and orderly in the hospital knew his son was starting med school there in two weeks.

Six years later, and 100 heart attacks in, my father is never far from my mind.