Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182303a4b
Other Features: Teaching and Learning Moments

Through My Mask

Hyde, Elisabeth MD

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Dr. Hyde is a resident, Department of Family Medicine, UPMC St. Margaret, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; e-mail: hydee@upmc.edu.

I never said a word to you. I just stared from behind my mask and yellow isolation gown, from behind the doctors who were ordering your pain medications. We rounded on you every day, but you were not mine to keep track of. Still, I liked seeing you—sometimes because I worried that I would not and sometimes because you would surprise me and look better.

I still don't know how you did it—cracking jokes with the doctors who could no longer offer you hope. Your impersonations made us laugh, though your motions were slow and weak. You knew you were charming, even with your dark eyes sunken and lips cracked and crusted from weeks of breathing through your mouth. Your smile made me blush, but you probably did not see it through my mask.

I was embarrassed, standing there. You, on the bed, dying and entertaining us with your improvisation, and me, lost in the crowd, my notebook blank. I was dressed like I should be able to do something important, with my gown and stethoscope and well-informed knowledge of your disease, but I could not offer you anything really. I could not change the fact that, at 26, your life was ending and mine was just taking off. So I just stood there, not saying a word.

Outside the hospital we might have been friends. But outside your room we talked about your death and how you needed to plan for it. I didn't blame you for pretending that time was endless. I imagine that I would feel immortal too, at my age, even if the pain was intolerable and the breathing difficult. You translated our daily platitudes, careful reminders that you were not going to leave the hospital alive, to an expectant family sitting by your side. I wonder how you phrased your fate in Spanish. I imagine that it was gentle, for your mother, tired from nights of sleeping on a chair next to you.

Elisabeth Hyde, MD

© 2011 Association of American Medical Colleges

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