Tuesday, September 10, 2013

9/11 Repost

My dream is always the same.

It’s just another day in hell. I stand on the Bone Marrow Transplant unit. There are no windows. Suddenly the building starts to shake. The ceiling cracks letting in rays of sunlight. The ground rumbles below.

Sadness, grief, and despair spew from the floor. They rise as black lava erupting from the innards of the building and drag me to the street. I am swept forward as black death encompasses the earth and moves to envelop the sun. It carries me to the east, always to the east.


I've never thrown a punch. Never been in a fight or carried a gun. So if you ask me what it is like to do battle…I only have a limited set of experiences to draw from.

I did, however, catch a glimpse of the desperation of war during residency when I spent a month in the Bone Marrow Transplant unit. I felt continuously under fire, attacked from all sides, desperate. I experienced death every day.

It wasn't just the elderly. It was also the young. Mothers, fathers, children, no one was spared!


The Bone Marrow Transplant program during residency was large. There were fifty patients on the unit and then thirty scattered amongst the oncology floors. We had ten admissions a day, and the same number of discharges. On average one patient died every shift.

The job of taking care of these patients fell on two fellows, two residents, one attending physician, and countless dedicated nurses.

There are many beautiful life affirming stories that occur on a Bone Marrow Transplant floor.

This is not one of those.


I remember my last day on the unit. I spent the morning avoiding ambush. There were no codes. All our patients survived the night.

I stepped into Mrs. P’s room gingerly. Mrs. P had been in the hospital for over 6 months. She had a stubborn lymphoma that persisted despite treatment. She knew that she would never return home.

She knitted every morning as she watched the news. As with so many patients, our conversation moved from cordial greetings to a discussion of world events. I went through the motions of my examination as she recounted the most recent atrocities. They were particularly horrible today.

We did this every morning. She telling me who recently died, or was killed, or robbed. And I feigning interest although, in reality, I had lost touch with life outside the unit. The world could fall apart but I was too busy: scurrying after labs, running codes, and talking to family members.

Secretly trying to protect myself from the death and destruction that surrounded me.

If you listened closely to the discussions that we had every morning the essence of what was said would sound something like this:

“Doctor, I watch TV and see that in the world things are happening, and I am still here”. And dutifully I would respond, “Yes, yes, bad things are happening in the world and yet, thankfully, you are still here!”

Mrs. P’s days were limited. And my days on the unit were almost over. I worked twelve hours a day, every day, for a month. My time at home, in-between shifts, was surreal. I would sleep, eat, have conversations. They were mostly exhausted bridges to my next stint on the unit.

I had become a robot, a zombie.

I was withdrawing.


It was just another day in hell.

I sat down for rounds that morning. Mrs. P was right, things were happening in the world and strangely I couldn't’t relate. The TV above us was blaring the latest news. My attending was sitting down with his daily Tab and being prepped by the other residents.

The hum of the nursing station had reached a fevered pitch. I glanced at my progress notes and realized that I forgot to add the date and time. I looked at the clock on my pager:

10:45 AM


The world had instantly changed.

And it would take a good deal of time and spiritual healing to realize that it wasn’t just another day...

of death and destruction on the unit

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