“I’ve had enough,” Albert said, “can’t you just give me the morphine and let me go?”
We sat behind a curtained wall in a sleeping ward. I had watched stories like this in hospital dramas, stories where patients whispered for an end to their misery and begged compassion from a soap opera doctor. I had watched them through doubtful, distracted eyes and yet I had somehow found myself in a scene for which there was no script and no well-rehearsed lines for me to deliver to the camera.
Albert looked up. “No one would know,” he said.
He was right.
No one would.
Albert was dying. He had been bled and photographed and analysed and a formulary of expensive drugs ribboned through his veins. Above our heads, people had discussed him in front of projector screens and counted out his life in milligrams and micrograms, and shifted the weight of expensive educations to explain him away.
Yet despite all this, Albert continued to die.
And no one knew why.
I held the syringe in my hand and he watched me with beaten eyes.
“I’m just so tired,” he said.
“I can’t, Albert.” I heard my words and the sound forced me to look away. “I can’t make decisions like that. No one can play God.”
He looked at drip stands which crouched over him like watchful servants and monitors which measured the grip by which he held on to this world.
“Can they not?” he said.
We didn’t need the x-rays and the CT scans and the blood results.
Albert had simply given up.
They were reluctant to allow him the courtesy of dying. Medicine is rarely troubled by death, but it becomes very anxious when patients die without explicit permission. Eventually, however, Albert was granted his wish, and the monitors and the drip stands and the projector screens were taken away and he was moved to a side room and allowed to wait for God.
Albert’s wife Pearl was wheeled in each day from her nursing home. She was lost in a mist of powder and bewilderment and sat by her husband’s bedside as he drifted away and out of her life.
Each time I passed his room, I looked in at them. Their hands held each other in resignation and Pearl rested her head on Albert’s chest. They looked like teenagers, folded into each other’s arms, but instead of starting a life together, I knew they lay in wait for sixty years of marriage to end.
But there are some things which medicine can’t explain.
There are some things which can’t be measured in milligrams and micrograms and there are some things which can’t be scanned and photographed and projected onto a computer screen.
And very slowly, Albert began to get better.
I wish I could tell you what Pearl said to him. I wish I could bring you the magic which gave him back his hope, but each time I passed their room, neither of them were speaking and I wonder if, after sixty years of marriage, words had become unnecessary.
All I know is that the more I see of medicine, the more I am convinced that the greatest healing properties of all lie in the act of human kindness.
A few days later, I walked past Albert’s room. I looked in to speak, but he was too occupied to notice and I smiled to myself.
I smiled all the way down the corridor. I smiled as I walked through rooms full of expensive scanners and past a pharmacy which heaved with clever drugs and I especially smiled as I looked into fattened consultation rooms and breathed their air of self-importance.
I smiled because Albert was reading.
And I smiled because it was a very thick book.