The Best Friend You Never Wanted

This moment has been rolling around and around in my head. I sat down on the stool. I turned to my patient. He was intoxicated. I realized I had seen him here in my emergency department just six days ago. “Hey.” I said gently. “What happened?” Tears welled in his eyes. He went into the story of his past six days. I had seen him six days ago, and he had begged to go to rehab. As he had innumerable times in the past. He really wanted help. He needed help. But it never helped. He had gone to a Detoxification Center and had stayed there three days where they ensured he went through withdrawals safely. Then he went home. And he started drinking again. And here he was. Back again. “Please. I need help.”

I leaned in. I listened. I nodded. I felt his sadness. He suddenly stopped talking abruptly. And he just stared at me. “Why do you care so much?”

The question startled me. Took me off guard. No one had ever asked me that. And trust me. I have been asked some fairly awkward questions. Why do I care. How do I even answer that question? Isn’t it just a fundamental part of what I do?   At the time, I had no eloquent answer.  I just stared back.  And dumbly said, “I just DO. I care because I know you need me to.”  At the time, I thought, I care because you are hurting. I care because you are human and everyone makes mistakes. And I believe you. You need help. This is your hellish cycle: You get help. It fails you, or maybe you slipped back away yourself.  Or maybe it is a combination of both.  It doesn’t matter. Then you need help again. I don’t know. The system is broken. It is so broken. And for you, something is failing, time and time again.  I do care. I don’t know. I can’t explain it, really.

But when he asked that question, I felt it knock the wind out of me. All of the caring I had bottled and neatly packaged into some crevice of my chest resurfaced into this avalanche of emotions. Yesterday, I saved a life. I brought his heart back from a standstill just as my daughter and son’s kindergarten open house was starting. I missed the open house waiting for his brother to arrive so I could talk to him. But I got there (mostly) in time for the kindergarten meeting. I sprinted up the walkway to the elementary school entrance, out of breath, just in time to see my daughter’s face light up when she saw me.  I mouthed an apologetic “sorry” to my son’s kindergarten teacher who was in the middle of addressing all the on-time parents as I slipped into a seat in the back of her classroom.

Before I walked into this room, I delivered a 16-week-old baby that the mother had spontaneously miscarried. I left her to grieve in private with her husband. And her baby girl. Tiny fingers. Tiny toes. Lifeless. Limp. Wrapped in a warm blanket. I’ll remember my heart-broken patient’s face. Stunned, sweaty, strong, brave. So many questions. So many fears. So much loss.

I care because it is all so much bigger than me. It is about lives. It is about families. It is about death. It is about surviving. It is about hopes.  It is about milestones. And I don’t know how to make sense of it all, how it all strings together and falls into place. Sometimes, I don’t know what else to do but care. To be present. To listen. It seems so very, very surreal that I can grieve the return-to-life of someone that I am not sure will make it to tomorrow as I race in the door, breathless, to my son and daughter’s kindergarten meeting.

I care because I am the best friend you never wanted.  You come into my space and tell me your most personal thoughts.  You tell me how this was unexpected.  How this is a horrible day.  How you had so many exciting hopes and daydreams for this growing baby in your womb.  How ecstatic you were to be a cozy family of three.  You tell me that my dying patient is your brother and you are the only family he has and how you wished he and his daughter had made amends.  You tell me you have been in and out of 14 different rehabs and you just want help.  You just want help.  Is there anything else I can do?  These are all the things you want to tell your best friend.  The best friend that you haven’t had a chance to call yet as you were rushing to the hospital.  The best friend you never had but wished you did.  The best friend that has given up on you because you have had one too many chances.  But here we are, just you and me, staring at one another.  So, you tell me your story.  It is about your hopes, your fallen dreams, your gut-wrenching day of heartbreak.  And it is all so real and I can’t help but feel fallen with you.

This is what we do. My colleagues and I. We care. We care more than you know. We don’t know the best way to express it all the time, but we do. We wonder if you have already started setting up the nursery that you will now have to let sit empty.  And we secretly hope you have not, as we can’t imagine the heartache of deciding whether to leave it as is or take it down.  We wonder if you will live to walk out of the hospital.  We wonder if this time, maybe this time, you will get the help you need.

We are far from your best friends.  But today, we will be who you need us to be in your life.  We will time and again–without question–put our lives on hold for yours. We will grapple with the balance between life at home with lives at work. But we know what is important. I can’t explain it better than to say, our hearts are with you.

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