She reminded me of my mother – if my mother were a charming Southern Belle from Texas who believed that God dictated every move in her life. If my mother drove a motorcycle. If my mother was raised spending her weekends with family in Louisiana devouring platters of seafood. There was something striking about her mannerisms, though. The way she liked to hold my hand when we spoke. The way she listened to me – with kindness in her eyes, as if what I said actually mattered.
She was life-flighted onto the helicopter pad with concern for an acute myocardial infarction and was rushed into the Emergency Department where I met her in the trauma bay. She was in the middle of a cross-country motorcycle road trip with her husband when her chest had started to ache. The tech handed me a piece of paper that a year ago I would have struggled to decipher. Within three seconds I knew the steep elevations, the ones that looked like the plateau drop-offs of the southern Utah high desert I normally spent my time in June exploring, were demonstrations of the blocks in multiple blood lines through her heart. Her troponin was elevated.
Perhaps she reminded me of my mother because she looked nothing like the other patients on the cardiac floor. Her petite frame, 60 years young, drowned in the sheets of the hospital bed. She told me of her love for long runs and her most recent marathon endeavor. She told me how she had not eaten processed sugar in over two years. She told me of her love for her daughters. She scrolled through photos on her phone of bright-eyed young women. “C is a labor and delivery nurse. You’d love her,” she told me. “J is the best mom to her kids. She’s getting remarried in August. Let me show you her wedding dress,” she said. Perhaps she reminded me of my mother because even though my job was to care for her, she was the one who actually took care of me.
We rushed her to the catheter lab and I watched as she had three stents placed into two of her main coronary arteries. “Deploy,” I heard the interventional cardiologist say over and over again.
I was six days into my third year of medical school, it was my first week of internal medicine, and all of my other patients had made life choices that placed them with us. “I smoked for forty-five years,” one man told me.”I just can’t give up my love for churros,” a sweet Hispanic grandma said the day before. Another young man confided in me his love for cocaine. But with her, it just didn’t add up.
The next morning we reviewed her lab results and her total cholesterol levels were higher than any my attending had ever seen. “700?” I repeated, as we stood as a team in the hallway, dumbfounded at the numbers on the screen.
We talked about her possible history of familial dyslipidemia and slowly connected the dots in her family tree that had never been pieced together before. Instead of panicking upon hearing the news, she thanked us for helping her understand that the episode wasn’t her fault.
On her last morning I made sure to make it to the hospital with an additional thirty minutes to spare. It had become routine that I’d spend extra time with her after asking all the necessary medical questions I would later report back to my team when we rounded the floor. I would sit on the end of her bed and we’d chat while she ate her heart-healthy breakfast. This time she wished me well, asked her husband to take a photo of us together – but only once she did her hair, finished her make-up, and changed out of her hospital gown – and I knew that I’d miss her and her southern drawl after our week together on the floor. She had shared with me her love for God and I shared with her my love for science and literature. As I now think about it, months later, I realize her maternal presence was the most warm welcome to clinical medicine I could have asked for.
“Good luck,” she said with her delicate smile as I walked out of her room for the last time.”Come visit us in Lubbock, if you’re ever passing through.”