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The Surgeon Learns A Lesson

Updated on June 20, 2008

Life is good, a graceful death is not too bad either.

Mrs Watson smiled at me. Her eyes were bright and calm, not the ones you expect to see on a dying patient. Her breast cancer had spread to her lungs and her spine. The chemotherapy was not working any more. She knew she was dying. Yet there was no sadness in the room.

"Thank you, doctor, I feel much better now." I was called upon to drain an abscess in her salivary gland, a side effect of the chemotherapy.

"You are welcome. I'm glad that you are feeling better." I have learned not to be too wordy in patients who haven't got much time left. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Ah, yes. Can you tell my husband to go home and take a nap? He has not slept for two days since I had this temperature."

"Sure, no problem, I'll make sure he does that."

"Look, doctor, it's not as easy as it seems." She looked a little embarrassed to have to explain. "He keeps imagining that if he goes home and closes his eyes for just a minute, he will get a call from the hospital, to inform him that I'm dead. Of course, it's all nonsense. I know I'm not ready yet. I'm not ready because he isn't." I just kept listening quietly, the only proper thing to do. She went on. " This could be the last thing that I can do for him, to make it as easy as possible for him. My mother died from breast cancer twenty years ago. She kept her cool to the last moment and made it somewhat easier for Dad and me. So I know it can be done. I was crying for a week when they told me that my cancer had spread. Then I remembered my mother and what she did. That's what I want now, more than life itself, to die a graceful death. I want to leave behind me strength for my family to move on, just like my mother ."

I was amazed and did not know what to say. I put my hand on her shoulder and showed my approval, which I was sure she didn't need.

"I'll ask him to come in to see for himself that you are OK. And I'll tell him that he should go so that you could sleep a little."

"Thank you, doctor."

"Not at all."

I left her room in awe. I kept thinking about Mrs Watson and her mother whose sound and sight had long gone. After twenty-two years in surgical practice, I'd think I knew death and had learned it all. Yet, there are still new lessons to learn. Life is good. A graceful death is not so bad either. To our loved ones, it will always be a source of calmness and strength, even twenty years later, when they need it most.

Life comes and goes. Love stays on and on.

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