Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Having Your Story Told

Mrs. Fitz clasped her husbands dangling hand as her son and daughter sat in the empty chairs next to the examining table. The children had brilliant black hair with the beginning of gray streaks at the edges. The family waited quietly while I maneuvered the stool into the corner so I could interact with each member without craning my head. The daughter cleared her throat to speak and looked affectionately towards her father's wheel chair.

Since you are going to help my father die, we thought you should know his story.


The mustang glided easily under Captain Fitz's steady hand. The World War II era fighter was reserved for only the most advanced fliers. He was finishing a successful mission in enemy territory, when he noticed a flash out of the corner of his right eye. The staccato sound of gunfire was brief but ended in a large thudding sensation that he felt in his fingertips as he struggled to control the flubbing aircraft.

Seconds later he felt a heave of pressure on his chest as the cabin rolled. He fell into a tailspin. His body hurdled violently toward the ground as the unbearable g-forces lead to a loss of consciousness. As his eyes closed for what he believed to be the last time, he pictured the pale face of his fiancee waiting innocently for his return.

Like a bird suffering from a heart attack in midair, he tumbled lifelessly out of the sky. He later calculated that he fell at least forty thousand feet. He awoke expecting to meet his maker at the pearly gates.

Instead, his first recollection was searing pain coming from his right leg. He looked down to see the bottom half of his lower extremity shattered and bent disfiguringly under his thigh.

Three men stood above him speaking in a foreign tongue. One pointed a rifle in his direction and gesticulated wildly. The other two walked calmly over to the captain and lifted him onto a stretcher.

On the thirtieth anniversary of the crash, Captain Fitz would return to the exact site and be reunited with the three men who had had every intention of killing him. But in a strange twist of fate the men decided it would be a bad omen to kill a man who had survived such an incredible fall.


Captain Fitz was taken to a POW camp where a fellow prisoner happened to be an orthopaedic surgeon. His leg was meticulously cleaned and splinted. His extremity was spared but his luck was brief.

The Captain refused to speak of what happened in the camp. But he survived years of torture and forced labor. When the war was over he limped back across enemy lines.

He came home to find a fiancee who had already attended his funeral. Within months they were married and soon were expecting their first child. Captain Fitz became a proud father.

He returned to school and earned a PhD. His research would eventually have profound effects on modern medicine and biology. He would educate the next generation of researchers and physicians.

As he entered his eighties, the miracles would run out. Captain Fitz developed a progressive neurological disease that first stole his words and then his thoughts. Relegated to a wheel chair, his body failed in the same manner as his mind.

As Captain Fitz sat silently in front of me on that day, his daughter's eyes brimmed with tears. His son put his arm gently around his mother's shoulder.

I took a moment to enjoy the silence. We were all lost in thought.

Captain Fitz died a few months later. None of my subsequent visits were nearly as profound.


Sometimes part of dying is having your story told.

Sometimes being a healer is less about talking and more about listening.

Medicare has no way of measuring such things. There are no ICD-10 or CPT codes for this kind of interaction.

But ask anyone who spends their life taking care of others.

This is where the healing takes place.