Now that I am retired from surgery memories come floating into my head. Incidents that I had forgotten big and small and good and bad. I have been ruminating on one of my patients who was quite an inspiration to me (we will call him E). If the rebirth theory and Nirvana holds true he was close to attaining that state, old soul and all that. It so happened that when I dealt with patients that some of them became my friends. It was understandably those with serious diagnoses. They and their families need so much more from you than simple cases solved quickly. The simple cases mainly need technical excellence and that is that. In some ways I was rationing my “love” because I think my “love” is finite. I know that some teach that the more you give the more you can give but I don´t think so. I have seen so many health professional who have become callous and burnt out with no “love” left to give.
Back to my friend and our journey together. In some ways you might say that I have lived through many lives with my patients especially their last years. We sat together drinking coffee and telling each other stories. When my friend was a boy on a farm in South East Iceland one of our national bards Thorbergur was visiting as he was born in that area. Thorbergur was notorious for his angst of ghosts and everybody knew that even little boys.
“So little E are there any ghosts here on this farm” Thorbergur asks? “There are some in the barn and stables but that is nothing compared to the farmhouse. It is very bad here” E answers. “Now that is some news. Where are they most aggressive” Thorbergur asks? “Well if you insist it will be in guest room where you will be sleeping.” And so it went little E worked himself up telling ghost stories real and imagined. He was so focused that he started to believe them himself. Thorbergur believed any and all ghost stories. When it became time to go to bed E told me that Thorbergur had said to him. “Little E it is best that you sleep with me tonight.”
He told his stories quietly with a soft smile and immense presence. He was a tall man powerfully built and with the largest pair of hands I ever have seen. He radiated kindness but he was firm all the same. Previously the nightlife in Reykjavik had become rowdier and wilder. In one incident the bad boys had spilt into the ER and were partying. Knocking over medicinal cabinets and what not. Young Dr. H (one of my closest friends) was dusted a bit and the attending orthopedic surgeon Dr. H* who is built like a classical orthopedic surgeon (a tank) and behaves like one. Not the kind kumbaya type you meet today. He sustained rib fractures so good times were had all around. The countermeasures were to have an officer there during the weekends. Officer E was one of the first to take that shift and when he was there all was calm. The bad boys came and he just met them and genially said “How are you boys” smiled and placed his hand on someone´s shoulder and that was enough. You can radiate power in different ways.
I had to do a rather big abdominal operation on him one early spring and he recovered from that eventually. I meet him the next fall. “What have you been up to my friend?” “Well I was not sure if I was alive after all I have been through” he said. “You look alive to me.” “I know and I feel alive now after my experiment.” “Now what did you do” I asked him? “Well as I was in doubt on my vitality I returned to my birthplace. You know there is this glacial river there Jokulsa i Loni?” “I know” I answered “I have seen that river and passed it on the bridge several times.” He says “I know a ford in that river from my youth.” “And” I ask? He goes on and “I picked up a big slab of stone to weigh me down.” Now I became worried “You idiot you could rupture the wound or some such doctor worries.” His answer was “But I needed to know if I was alive.” A verbal touchdown?
“Then I proceeded to the ford on the river and made it over to the other bank. The current was fast and cold but the stone kept me down but I became pretty tired though.” And goes on “Now I realized the car was on the opposite site so I had to wade it again.” I am now flabbergasted. He continuous “Then I knew I was alive.” Just like that calmly half smiling and with this gentle and loving presence that I cannot fully describe.
Now as fate would have it his disease returned and it slowly led him to his demise. “How are you E what is going on now?” On one of his last visits to the outpatient clinic. “Well I am so happy now.” “What is going on” I ask. “My disease and the way things are going have brought my family together.” There had been some discord and strife that I knew about in his life (discord and strife, isn´t that just generally life eh?) “Now that I am dying we have solved some of our problems and we are united again. I am very grateful for that.”
I loved this man and will always be grateful that I got to know him.
As I write this I think that the smoke from the fireplace has gotten to my eyes and I need to go fix that.
*Dr. H is without question my favorite orthopedic surgeon. Both Drs. H are fly fishermen and there is a river there somewhere as this is a fishing blog.
Pictures Drifa Freysdottir
Only those filled with love can write with this kind of love. Thank you for sharing this story.
It was always quite obvious to me that you were one of my acquaintances whom I would be honored to call my friend. There are few honors one can bestow more poignant than to be remembered as you have this man of large hands. Those of us who have undergone life challenging surgeries understand his quest to demonstrate that he was still alive.