Normally I don’t enjoy talking to the families of patients in the ER about non-medical stuff. The families are usually filled with nervous energy, I’m usually focused on making a diagnoses and keeping up my press-gainey scores while not making any horrendous mistakes. The conversation that ensues is therefore usually shallow chatter to pass the time.
So when the elderly daughter of my patient began pacing the ED and started asking me questions, I didn’t put much effort into the conversation initially. But somehow she was different. As a retired nurse in her 70s, caring for her mother, she had all the classic features of wisdom…a wrinkled forehead, smile lines to spare and an air of acceptance regarding the uncertainties of life.
So I started listening.
The chatter started with the weather as it usually does, then about the winter winds. I told her how windy it was while I was fishing earlier and her eyes began to sparkle.
“Where did you go fishing?” she asked, with her soft, scratchy, tobacco voice. The intermittent puffs of her oxygen were a little bit distracting, so she took it off for the duration of our conversation.
As she began to rattle off the names of the high-altitude lakes her lungs would no longer let her hike to, I imagined a much younger woman, dressed in a tan ranger hat, pistol at her side and ice axe in hand as she patrolled these mountains daily every summer for over a decade. She was reliving every backcountry patrol she’d ever taken as she talked about the 34″ rainbow trout found after the devastating Lawn Lake flood, and about getting tired of catching fish because they were so plentiful in the lakes that were harder to get back to. She had retired by then (over 25 years ago), but her memories were as fresh as ever.
Her mother came back fromt the CT scanner, I talked to the radiologist, made my diagnosis and got ready to discharge her home. The ex-ranger and I exchanged smiles, and with some sadness, I told her I’d be leaving the mountains in less than a week. We had formed an instant connection and I wished I’d met her years ago, before her oxygen tank kept her anchored at less than 8000 feet.
“Well, we’ll have to go fishing next summer, someplace low so my lungs can keep up.”
“Yes, we’ll go fishing next summer,” I replied.
The whole encounter was exciting and sad at the same time. I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to her. The thought that she may be a patient in the ER herself someday very soon for lung problems overwhelmed me in my sleepless state at 5AM. I snuck out of the department without saying goodbye, and felt like I had both found and lost my best friend.
I will talk to you next summer, Ranger, take good care of yourself. Save some of the fish for me.