Monday, November 14, 2011

If I Die Young

It's funny how a few words, a phrase, or music can bring back buried memories.

If I die young, bury me in satin
Lay me down on a, bed of roses
Sink me in the river, at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song

The sharp knife of a short life, oh well
I've had just enough time

I heard this song on the radio this morning. A rush of memories flooded my brain in the form of the smiling face of a beautiful little girl.


Hola Flaco!

Hola Flaca!

A peel of giggles erupted from the small figure enveloped by the hospital bed. Her frame was lithe and frail but her eyes were large and luminous. Sparkles of light and fire shot forth when she honored me with her melodic laugh.

I was a third year medical student and unaccustomed to the wall building that accompanies most medical education. I had been assigned to the case because I was the only medical student on the team who spoke passable Spanish.

Although we sometimes had trouble communicating, the relationship had attained a certain level of fluidity. The family called me "flaco", the Spanish word for skinny, because I had started to work out during the rotation and lost ten pounds. My clothes were hanging uncomfortably off my body and my pants were barely held up by my overextended belt.

Although the miniature girl in the hospital bed was alive with passion and spirit, her body was dying. In better times, I referred to her as "flaca", the female version of my nickname. But, as the days passed, I became leery as she lost more weight and her illness progressed. Her rampant giggling reprimanded me for my political correctness and reminded me that it was just a small intimacy between inconvenient friends.


Flaca was struggling. Her energy was waining and her laboratory values told the story of a fairy tale that was coming to an end. Her body could no longer sustain the repeated insults of medication and dialysis.

One night toward the end of my pediatrics rotation, she spiked a fever. The nurses hurried to administer Tylenol and draw blood cultures but they were unsuccessful. As I walked into the room with a tourniquet and butterfly needle, Flaca's eyes turned cold.

I fumbled with words in both Spanish and English to explain why I needed to draw her blood. My resident stood above me tapping her foot in disapproval because she felt there was no time for explanations.

Flaca pulled her arm away from me and spit in anger. The fear in her parents eyes was overcome by determination. They nodded at the nurse who walked over and pinned Flaca's arm down against her struggling torso. I quickly grabbed the needle and jabbed her arm. As the blood flowed, we all gasped a sigh of relief.


Flaca would never speak to me again. When I entered the room she would turn her head in disapproval. The frailty of her body was betrayed by the unending strength of her anger. It was as if my face had become the form of all the hurt and sadness brought on by her terrible illness.

She died a few days later. And along with her a small part of myself.

I will always hold the greatest respect for those who take care of our ill and dying children.

But I could no longer be one of them.


Anonymous said...

So many memories. Some good. Some bad. Thanks for this touching post.

tracy said...

i am sorry for the way this turned out...losing "Flaca's" friendship over a blood draw...which can be dramatic, especially for a very sick child. But still...

Thank you for a sad and beautiful story.