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Waiting To Die

Surgeons are not so good at standing back, yet sometimes doing nothing is exactly what needs to be done. I remember one time that this turned out to be slightly humorous in a morbid sort of way.
I was in my vascular rotation which was not too much fun (except for a short moment). Generally if a patient came in in the late afternoon requiring an operation, your entire night would be destroyed. And there was pretty much nothing worse than an abdominal aorta aneurysm (AAA). Scratch that. A bleeding AAA was a lot worse than an AAA. So when casualties called and said they had a bleeding AAA my heart sank.

The patient was pale and clammy and his heart was racing. But the thing that struck me the most was his age. The man was 89 years old. The casualty officer also mentioned that he had previously been diagnosed with ischaemic heart disease. So, in summary we had a man just this side of ninety with comorbidities and a condition that was known to kill most of its victims thirty years younger than him. The chances of him surviving the operation were dismal. I called my senior.

My senior (the vascular fellow) examined the patient and went through his file. Like me he concluded that an operation would push him over the cliff whose edge he was standing next to. In consultation with the patient’s son, the decision was made to make the patient comfortable and leave him to the inevitable. I confess I had the thought that at least I’d get to sleep, but I also knew the sort of sleep one gets while waiting for death to take one of your patients is a broken and rocky sleep.

The next morning I arrived for my rounds. I hoped the patient was dead but when I walked past his son just outside the ward I knew I would find him alive in the ward. After a patient dies the family always seem to flee the hospital. The stress of the night was etched into the face of the son. I could tell his night had been worse than mine.

Sure enough when I entered the ward, there was the old man lying in bed just where I had left him the night before. It seemed the pain medication was working though. He wasn’t quite as restless as the day before. I walked into his room. I didn’t bother checking his vitals. What would be the point? He looked up at me. I was surprised to see he was doing so well. I remember hoping the fellow hadn’t told the family it would be all over by the morning because the old man seemed to be set on proving him wrong. The one problem with him still being alive was that I’d have to take over the role as the intermediate with the family. The fellow would make himself scarce now that the initial footwork had been done.

I greeted the old man.

“Môre oom.” I said. He looked at me.

“Môre neef” he replied, using a greeting that had gone out of circulation many years before I was even born. I smiled. He seemed quite spritely for someone in his position. But his next statement really gave me a chuckle.

“Neef, is it true that you are not going to operate?”

“Yes it is true, oom.” I replied.

“Well then if you are not going to operate why don’t you send me home? There are things I need to do on the farm you know.” How could one not admire that sort of attitude? I smiled broadly.

He took another day and a half to die. It was tough on his son, but I suspect he sucked the marrow out of every one of his last moments of life.

*This blog post was originally published at other things amanzi*


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