It was late. I had just finished a straight-forward appendectomy. I explained the findings and expectations for recovery to the family gathered in the waiting area. There were a lot more people there than in the emergency room just a few hours earlier.
“Yes, he will most likely be going home tomorrow morning,” I answered in response to a final question from a family member. I shook the mother’s hand and turned to walk away. Everyone’s expression was one of relief. It’s an every day diagnosis and procedure for us; for them, it’s quite possibly the scariest thing to have happen to a love one.
Except it wasn’t.
“I think I know you,” I heard when my back was already turned. “Do you take care of people in car crashes?” It was a timid inquiry.
“Yes, I am an acute care surgeon. I do trauma and emergency general surgery.”
“You think you took care of my daughter. Years ago. She died in a car crash. She…”
I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for that mother to be back in that hospital, back in a bland waiting room with fluorescent lights illuminating my face again. I simply can’t. But, I had a crystal clear memory of that morning. Nothing was left to the imagination that day. Nothing needed to be discerned by the powers of radiation vectors.
It was a long time ago. Still, the image of that poor girl, a life I could not save, a body badly mangled by someone going the wrong way at highway speeds, was seared in my brain. It was truly horrific. The bodily damage was unlike I had ever seen before. My boss with more than 30 years more experience was there too. Neither had he.
“…Thank you for everything you did. You were so kind to us. You told us she didn’t suffer. You let us wail and you held us. We never said thank you.”
“Yes, I remember,” I gulped. I felt a lump in my throat, a tear in my eye.
CPR was in progress upon arrival. There was nothing to do but be kind. Words of gratitude were neither needed nor expected. It’s what we do. However, the reminder that families are grateful when we tell them we removed a vestigial organ without incident or when we deliver the soul-crushing news that their child is dead was deeply appreciated. For the lives we cannot save, with kindness and empathy we can at least spare those left behind from just a little bit of suffering in the midst of so much agony.