Stan is the person in the piece below. His impact on my life opens and closes a chapter on those who bring joy to our lives in the yet to be published work, Life Lessons, What Our Patients Teach Us. I edited those two pieces to be one narrative, the one I submitted to the PNWA literary contest. On this day after Thanksgiving, I remain happy for our friendship.
“There is a Mr. Dorfel to see you in waiting room,” was the overhead page. I was finishing notes from my morning clinic, but went out to greet him in our empty waiting room. As soon as he saw me, he jumped up, same plaid flannel shirt, dentures clacking, toupee askew, and wrapped me in a big hug almost dropping the several rubber-banded bundles of papers he clutched in his hand. “Dr. D, we need to talk.”
Hugh and I went way back. He had been my patient at the community health center, and he briefly followed me to the university medical center when I left the clinic and changed jobs. When the university billing style and increased cost became more than he cared to manage, he had returned to the health center for his medical care.
As his doctor at the health center, our relationship had a rhythm: six months (summer and fall) of fairly frequent visits for his high blood pressure and preventive care and six months (winter and spring) of physical absence when he would escape to Mexico with its lower cost of living and warm winters. When he would return, his line was the same. “You know Dr. D, I would stay there all the year, but as you know, yours truly does not take that heat. And Seattle is dandy, but on that medicine you give me, my hands are just too cold for the winters. And Mexico is just marvelously wonderfully inexpensive,” he said, drawing out the marvelously like someone from the upper west side talking about last night’s gala.
His Mexico months were punctuated by long, rambling, and usually tangential letters, handwritten or typed on the old Royal typewriter that he hauled back and forth between Mexico and Seattle. He wrote on the politics of the day, his days in Mexico, my doctoring, stories he read in the New York Times, and other topics on his mind. A diehard liberal and pacifist, the envelopes carrying his letters always had several New Yorker cartoons folded inside. Regardless of who was in office and how critical he was of the moneyed interests, he would pepper his long monologues about the state of the world with his belief in the goodness of some, also always asking after each staff member’s and my children’s health followed by many repetitions of “and give my hearty best to them.” Hard to read in his scrawling hand and sprawling grammar, we would pass the letters around, and amid laughter and delight, we would each take a turn at trying to decipher the hand writing and to translate the run-on sentences into some sort of comprehensible message. We all knew another autumn would come and Hugh would be back visiting the clinic and stopping at each person’s desk to compliment everyone he encountered.
When he was in Seattle and still had his apartment, he would take the bus daily to a post office all the way across town where he kept his post office box.
“This way,” he said, “I can see all my old friends all over town.”
These old friends included the bus driver, the regulars on the city bus, and his favorite grocer where he bought bags of fresh vegetables and grains every day for cooking in his main utensil: his pressure cooker. He befriended everyone. Hugh stated several times, “If I can make someone’s day brighter, why not?” He often told me what a good person I was, whether he was referring to my doctoring, my mothering, or my personhood, and he was generous with these acknowledgements for pretty much everyone he met along the way.
One of his favorite refrains about his health went something like this: “You know I should be dead. When I was thirty-five, that one doctor told me that I would be dead by the time I was forty. You know it was (and, by the way it still is) that high blood pressure of mine, through the roof, but I told him it’d always been that way and you know it’s still that way. It’s just me, blood pressure always bouncing all over the place. And here I am, still kicking. Who would’ve imagined?”
Yes, there he was in my office that day: close to 80, his toupee even more bedraggled than the last time I had seen him, with hardly any worldly goods and reasonably good health, other than his high blood pressure and formerly large prostate, which he loved to tell any listening audience was the largest his surgeon had ever removed.
Most of us have some optimists in our midst. How many of these patients know their effect on us? My clinic day is scheduled with appointments every few minutes. In some specialties, an initial consultation might be allotted more time, but for most of us, wherever we are caring for patients, the pace is quick. A first look at the schedule before starting a clinic gives me a sense of whom I will be seeing. Sometimes that glance can open a floodgate of feelings ranging from anxiety about not knowing enough, to distress when seeing a challenging patient on the schedule, to delight when certain other patients are scheduled. There really are those patients, like Hugh, who quite simply brighten my day. These patients are just as likely to have major illnesses and some of them are dying when we work with them. Even then, some people experience life in ways that transcend what is difficult —and it is contagious.
I was delighted to see Hugh that day when he appeared, unannounced, in my clinic. I had not seen him for over two years and suggested we get lunch.
“Doctor D, I need you to be the executer of my will,” he said, producing a card from that rubber-banded bunch of papers and handing it to me. “I have this attorney, see it’s right here on her business card, and she says I need to name someone. I won’t ask my kids. I don’t have anything to do with them. And I can’t ask my apartment manager as much as I know she is a great gal. You are the only one who can do this. It should not be any work. Really.”
From there he rambled on about his latest six months in Mexico, how his blood pressure was doing, and he reported on the health and welfare of the my former co-workers at the community health center.
“And how are the boys, Mr. Matthew and Mr. Nicholas?” he asked, always attentive to hearing how our family was faring. During occasional pauses in his monologue, he polished off his bowl of hot and sour soup without ever getting a direct answer from me about his request. Instead, I asked him to come meet me again in a week.
It had been years since I had been Hugh’s doctor, and I knew his social situation. As his doctor I had never succeeded in getting him to tell me about or deal with his estrangement from his son and daughter. At our next lunch, I agreed, conditionally, telling him, “This can only work if you stay in touch. I can’t have you here or Mexico and have no idea where you are or how you are doing. You have to become like part of our family.”
He dutifully stayed in touch with those long letters when he was in Mexico and soup dates when he was in town. After several years, Hugh’s health declined. I helped him find assisted living and we packed up his apartment, all of two suitcases of clothes and personal items, a small table and chair, two boxes of books and his papers, his Royal typewriter, and a few kitchen items. We recycled 16 brown grocery bags stuffed with the plastic bags that had held his vegetables and grain, and he relinquished his pressure cooker.
“Don’t expect me to learn how to use that microwave thing I now have instead of a stove, Dr. D. I had one of the first automatic cars in the country because yours truly could not learn to shift with a clutch. See this?” he said, swinging his can opener around his head. “This is my third like this. You can’t even find this kind any more, except at Goodwill, and I can’t use the new kind, and I am not talking about the electric new kind.”
His Mexico jaunts ended; my sons got to know him better and he became a more like a member of our family. We would visit him, shoot pool in their recreation room, and carry on about the state of the world, and he would come to our house for special occasions. Several hospitalizations and a number of years later, he moved to a skilled nursing facility where he lived until he died.
In those last and nursing home years, Hugh became the hat man. In his sixties and seventies, he had worn that toupee which aged into his 80s, becoming increasingly worn, dirty, matted and infrequently shampooed. During one hospitalization, his nurse supported my ultimatum, “lose the wig and be happily bald, or buy a new wig. This one is a rat’s nest and is going in the garbage.” With flourish, I threw it in the trash and he acquiesced. He gave up the toupee and never replaced it. Instead he donned hats. Always a bit unusual in his dress, and willing to be flamboyant, he started accumulating baseball caps, beanies, and hats for each occasion. He had a witch’s hat, a leprechaun’s hat, a Santa hat, and a pinwheel hat. On my visits, I would catch him, scooting up to the desk in his wheelchair, up to three hats on his head at one time, and smiling at the nurse, turning to me, and saying, “This is my friend, Martha, and she works so hard and is the best nurse here.” Later he would tell me, “We need to show more appreciation for the staff here. They work so hard and people are always complaining. I don’t know why they have to complain.”
This man brought a smile to my face, whether I was seeing him in clinic, reading one of those quirky barely understandable letters, picturing him heading across town to get his mail or across continents to Mexico, watching him interact with nursing home residents and staff, or sitting at our dining room table.
He took me aside on one visit to discuss another idea of his. Though he would have virtually no money left when he died, his wish was to give his little reserve fund to the health center where he received care for over 20 years.
“I want you to give what’s left to the clinic staff so they can have some relaxing times,” he instructed me. “They do so much. Do they ever have time or money for a party? You give it to them when I’m gone. Tell em how much they mean to me.”
“Hugh, why wait until you’re dead!” was my immediate reply. “I think you should give it to them!”
“Doc, I’m not much for speaking in public; I don’t think I could do that. You just handle it ok?”
“Look,” I rolled my eyes. “Your speaking ability is not the point. I would like you to see how much you touch them and it will mean a lot to them to have you give it to them. I’ll take you. This is not like learning a new can opener. If you can’t talk, I will help, but this is your gift, not mine.”
Finally I convinced him to give it to them while he was still alive. He and I went to a clinic staff meeting for the presentation.
“You work so hard, too hard, and I want you to have some time to take it easy, relax, just have some fun,” he told the staff, his voice cracking and tears streaming down his and many others’ faces. The standing ovation honored the caregiver in the room.