A Rare Kind of Faith
by Edison McDaniels | surgeonwriter.com | fiction
I knew there was nothing I could do as soon as I saw those films. One o’clock in the damn morning and raining, but the cold that came over me as I studied those images had nothing to do with either the night or the rain. It was the dread of knowing she was beyond any help modern medicine could offer.
She was going to die.
Not right there, not even that night. But as I stared at the flat, impersonal images of her wounded brain, my mind reassembled them into something fuller, into three-dimensions that I could work with, could contemplate. It was a useless effort though. All my contemplations told me she was never going to see four years old. I hated myself for knowing that just then.
I flipped the switches on the light boxes, darkening the room. I stood for a long moment, my right hand rubbing a new crease into my forehead. It was damn hard standing in that room, and I grew a headache just thinking about what was coming. It’s a difficult thing to tell somebody they’re dying—it’s another thing entirely to tell someone their future is dying, that all their hopes and aspirations have met a dead end. Literally.
I was in no hurry to impart the secret I alone knew. The hospital corridor was dim as I walked the hundred or so feet from radiology to the ER. Half the lights had been turned off, to conserve energy I guess. It leant the place a surrealistic look though, and in the darkness of that moment I sensed the hand of death and its long, cold fingers nearby. But a neurosurgeon, that would be me, comes to know that death is always nearby, never more than a heartbeat or two away in either the day or the night—it just seems closer in the dark. As my footsteps echoed in the empty night, I imagined the grim reaper and those hands—oh God, those hands: big, brutish, calloused, almost a foot from base of palm to fingertips, those tips with their cold, unmerciful touch. I saw the face of death too, obscured not by an executioner’s hood but a mask, the kind we wear in the operating room, where the eyes alone speak for us. As I imagined it, the reaper’s eyes were dark, sunken, lurking things I couldn’t quite look at—some things are better left unseen, even unimagined. Walking down that corridor, death cast a clumsy shadow—the boogeyman, the closet monster from my childhood, the eater of souls. Me.
I wasn’t the grim reaper of course—just the messenger. I would deliver the news, they would fall apart, we would call somebody from the clergy to help out, she would be admitted, and the futile suffering that was the battle to save her young life would begin.
I had seen it all before, had even given it a name. I called it the Sidney scenario.
I stopped by the desk for the medical record. I had gone directly over to radiology upon my arrival and hadn’t needed the girl’s name then, there aren’t many brain tumors lurking about the ER in the middle of the night. The first thing my eyes happened to fall upon was her birthday, which was my birthday as well. An odd coincidence I could have done without at that moment. I’m not a superstitious person, but I’ve always been fascinated by birthdays and the coincidences that stack up around them. Sometimes they’re just interesting, like her having my birthday, May 12th. But this went beyond that. This time it was downright eerie.
This little girl was born on May 12th and her name was Sidney Berry. Sidney, like my little sister, the one who died on my ninth birthday after a long and mostly futile battle…with brain cancer.
Yeah, I’ve seen it all before. And from both sides.
The curtain was closed around the cubicle and I stopped a moment, either to draw a last ounce of strength before entering—or to allow them a last moment with their precious future, with all their hopes and dreams still possible. When I did open the curtain, I found a black man of about forty sitting on the single chair beside the gurney. On the gurney itself was the cutest little girl. She had olive brown skin and thick black hair combed back into a single pony tail held together with a wide pink ribbon. She wore pink pajamas to match, a one piece sort that included booties and a long zipper down one leg. She was lying over on her side facing her father and when I entered she popped up immediately and smiled at me in a way no patient before or since ever has. Her lips curled back in a pleasing grin, her cheeks dimpled, and she batted a pair of big, soulful eyes at me. Her smile was comfortably familiar from the first and I had the impression I already knew her—and that she knew me.
There was something else about that smile though, something intensely disturbing, and it was probably the reason I had been called so quickly that night. It was uneven, a subtle asymmetry between the two sides, but glaring to my trained eye. She was still beautiful, but the left side of her mouth lagged and the dimple there was mostly just a suggestion. I suspected it had only been like that a day or two at most, otherwise somebody would have brought it to her parents’ attention. Parents are often the last to notice things like that.
Mr. Berry was a big man, not fat but big boned. He too smiled and immediately rose from his chair, putting his hand out to shake mine. I introduced myself and asked if Mrs. Berry was about. He said yes, that she had gone to the bathroom and would be back presently. Okay, I replied, then asked a few questions to gather a history. It wasn’t terribly important that history, but I wanted and needed to establish a rapport. You can’t just blurt out I’ve seen the images of your daughter’s brain and you might as well start looking for a coffin now. Truth be told though, I’ve seen physicians do just that.
When Sidney’s mother returned I introduced myself to her, leaving out—for the moment—that I was a neurosurgeon, just as I had done in introducing myself to her husband. Nobody’s ever happy to see a neurosurgeon, especially when their child—their future—is concerned. I wanted to work the field on my terms just then, bring them up to speed slowly and compassionately.
We talked awhile. Small talk in the wee hours of the ER I suppose. Often this is awkward, but there was no awkwardness in that cubicle that night. The Berrys were beautiful people, gifted with the most genuine and soft manner. They made me feel at ease. They both were obviously well educated—he was a Navy Captain and she was a college professor I found out later—but there was nothing pretentious about them at all.
Sidney had been diagnosed with an ear infection and I asked about that. “That’s right,” Mrs. Berry said. “She’s been pulling at her ear a lot lately, keeps rubbing the side of her head as well.”
“I see,” I said. She’s probably had a headache I thought. Kids will do odd things with headaches, just about everything except say they have a headache.
I had been leaning against the gurney all this time and now, as Mrs. Berry spoke, Sidney stood up and put her arms around me from behind. She laid her head on my shoulder as naturally as my own daughter would. She too was just three and the similarity between the two spooked me as I felt Sidney’s small embrace. For just a moment I found it hard to concentrate on what her mom was saying. “Any vomiting or problems eating?” I finally asked, knowing the answer.
“Hasn’t been eating well, just picking at her food. I thought it was the flu at first.” She looked at me and I saw the concern in her eyes.
“No vomiting, but, and this is the reason we came in tonight, she’s been gagging a bit,” Mrs. Berry said.
“Can you tell me about that?”
We talked some more and I tried not to appear overly concerned, but I was never very good at hiding a thing like that.
“Do you know what the problem is?” Mrs. Berry finally asked.
“Well, let me examine Sid and then we’ll talk, okay?”
Sidney still had her arms around me from behind. Her father picked her up and she immediately kissed him and offered an enormous though lopsided smile. Pound for pound, I’ve not seen a bigger smile since and it made my heart glad. He gently set her back on the gurney.
“Sidney, can you close your eyes tight sweetie?”
She did and I saw immediately how her left eyeball rolled upward until only the white was visible. Called a Bell’s phenomenon, it always looks a little eerie, especially in a three year old. It’s not abnormal though, the eye is suppose to roll up like that. But Sidney’s eyelid, which was suppose to cover it, stayed put. That was the abnormality.
Next I had her stick her tongue out and instead of jutting straight out, it veered to the left. Damn, I thought, ticking off a list in my head. Each abnormality served only to confirm the diagnosis and offered small comfort.
When I finished the exam, Sidney laid down and closed her eyes. Looking at her, I couldn’t help but think of my Sidney, my precious little sister, and of the Sidney scenario: the lingering torment her death became. It always seemed to me she had spent her last few weeks and months dying when she should have been living. I put the image of Sidney—both of them—out of my head and turned to her parents. I couldn’t put off what I knew any longer.
They looked at me and I at them. I can’t say that I fumbled for words. I had been a neurosurgeon a half dozen years by then and finding the words wasn’t the problem. It was the sentiment that I struggled with, trying to keep my voice from breaking. In less than an hour, this little girl had turned me inside out. She had that kind of force of personality. Some people live seventy years and never make an impact on another person. Sidney Berry was three and had an impact on every person she met.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “there’s a tumor.” And just like that, they knew. We spent some time, quite awhile really, discussing it. I told them it was inoperable, suggested they get another opinion. When we finished, I said I’d make arrangements to have her admitted.
“Why?” Mrs. Berry asked. “What can you do for her tonight that we can’t do for her at home in her own bed?”
The answer, of course, was nothing. What better place could there be for a little girl with an inoperable brain tumor than home in her own bed, surrounded by all her familiars, by her loving family? And just that quick, I knew.
The Berrys got those other opinions, but so far as I know she never spent a night in a hospital. She died in her own bed just shy of three months later, after a trip to Disneyworld and with her family at her side. She might have lingered a bit longer with chemotherapy, but that wouldn’t have been living her parents said. They had faith she was going to a better place and what they wanted to remember was the way she lived, not the way she died.
A rare kind of selfless faith that was—letting a child live in the midst of dying. It made my heart glad.