Monday, December 12, 2016

Spoiled Milk

There is no use in crying over spoiled milk!

I have been thinking a lot lately about focus.  As a young physician my ability to multitask was breathtaking.  I could answer an emergency phone call from the hospital, change a diaper, and mow the lawn while stopping at the store to buy my wife flowers.  I was able to navigate the roadblocks of each day without losing stride.  Sure I sometimes stumbled, but I was up and running again without cutting precious seconds off my daily wind sprints.

Age has changed me.  Through the years my career has grown, and the number of pressing professional interruptions has exploded. But more importantly, my mental agility has slowed.  My brain is no longer as nimble at managing multiple concurrent situations.  So choices have to be made.  When I am discussing end of life options with the family of an imminently dying patient, I tend to ignore the pulling on my sleeve as my son tries to convince me to buy the latest trinket in the department store.

Choosing becomes a mode of survival.

This weekend was no different.  The holiday season ushers in a  long slog of patient care crises that usually last well into March.  Between phone calls, I tried my best to navigate family activities, errands, and nursing home rounds.

And of course, it was imperfect. I missed the end of my children's violin concert because I was being berated by another physician for the care of her family friend in one of my nursing homes.  Later that night, as my kids frolicked in the newly fallen snow, I sulked at the edges of the park consumed by a patient care issue that didn't go exactly as planned.

My wife awoke to me sitting on the bed Sunday morning charting on a hospice patient instead of chatting affably and yawning away the last remnants of sleep.  We eventually rounded up the kids for a full day of errands, capped off by a trip to the grocery store, before going to my parents for dinner.  Katie had been looking for a special brand of milk that she explained, between phone call interruptions, would somehow be well suited for our children (I was too distracted to put it all together).

When we arrived at my parents, I dutifully put the milk in the refrigerator so as not to spoil.  After dinner, I retrieved the carton and packed it away with the other groceries stuffed into a bag with a bunch of binders for my son to take to school.

That night, during more phone calls, we unpacked the groceries, got the kids settled, and relaxed a few minutes before going to bed.

I woke up this morning at 4am in a panic wondering if I had remembered to unpack the milk and put it in the refrigerator.  After a quick shower, I got dressed and squeaked down the stairs to find that my fears had been realized.  There the milk was, sitting in the doorway, next to the binders, stuffed in a bag, spoiled.

On the way to work, I looked around at the deserted streets as my car whisked through the snow.  It was a little after five and the rest of the world had not yet wiped the sleep from their eyes.  And I began to cry.

Because the wisdom I have gained from years of dealing with sickness and death has taught me that I can't go back and start the weekend over again.

And be a better dad, a better husband, a better doctor.

What's done is done.

The milk has already spoiled.


Janice said...

I'm grateful when people I admire, especially physicians, share their humanness with us. It teaches us it's okay, that it's, in fact, healing.

When reading this poignant (and dare I say, brave) essay, I was reminded of wise words Carlos Downell wrote. Carlos was a homeless addict I had the privilege of knowing for several years before he died alone in an abandoned field in Albuquerque. He was one of my greatest teachers.

"Then the rains come, in the form of tears, and wash the pain, the loneliness, away and just for a moment, right after you’ve cried, you’re whole again. God gave us tears to get along. So that we could readjust our hearts and sanctify our souls. The modern world says a man, a real man, doesn’t need to cry and therefore never does. I
say, the hell you say. One long look at the modern world and that’s all the reason anyone would need to cry, at all. I say, let the tears fall down like rain. It’s long overdue. Maybe if more people cried, especially men, there’d be less violence, especially the violence we do to ourselves. The needles we drive into our arms. The isolation we impose on ourselves. The little deaths we die, day by day. Drylongso. Bring the rain."
(From his essay, "Drylongso")

Anonymous said...

From another physician who has been there, where you are now, and still end up there -- thank you.