My 92-year-old mother is in a Mobile, Alabama hospital with encephalitis. She is being attended by: an infectious disease specialist, a neurologist who has been in a wheel chair since age twelve, a GI man who looks like a college sophomore, a GP, and a surgeon who visits because he\’s a friend. There is also a nutritionist and a physical therapist, and swarms of nurses and aides.
It\’s the doctors that interest me. Every day, one by one the doctors come to my mother\’s bedside. If she\’s alert and speaking English, they chat with her and then walk out of the room with a spring in their step. If she is unresponsive they gaze at her pensively, then turn reluctantly to meet our questioning faces.
I have never seen such concentrated doses of medical humility. They make no bones about it: not one of them has any idea why she can be lucid, witty, reflective, and asking for lipstick before lunch, and completely unresponsive to speech or touch after the food tray is taken away. The rhythms of her struggling brain have got them baffled, and they seem almost as buffeted as we by the swings in her condition.
What is her prognosis, we ask. It\’s been two weeks since her diagnosis–what should we plan for–rehab, assisted living…a nursing home? We\’ve had affirmative answers to all the above. One doctor, after being instructed by her on the differences between Catalan and Castilian, predicts a complete recovery. Another one, having gotten no response from her two days in a row, advises us to find a nursing home. One specialist says, push the envelope, see if you can get her out of bed. His less optimistic colleague says we\’re risking a fall, and orders a catheter.
Every afternoon at five the thunderstorms come over Mobile, and wash away the worst of the heat.
I feel no anger towards these doctors. Standing with us around my mother\’s bed, they look worried and a bit depressed. Like the rest of us, they are waiting to see what the next few hours will bring. I like them this way. In this extremity, they shed their hubris and become good company. Just another presence at the bedside, watching and waiting and there.