Tuesday was the 100th ‘birthday’ of Oreo(TM) Cookies. However, this is not a post about Oreos.
On Tuesday I also gave blood. For the second time in my whole life. I find it a minimally painful, and maximally inspiring experience. Yet, this post is not about giving blood either.
At the end of the draw, to shore up those feeling weak, as a reward or a treat, most blood donation centers offer a small array of cheap, widely available snack foods. In every hospital I have ever been in, these are Nabisco snacks including Oreos and Lorna Doones. And it’s the Lorna Doones that inspired this post.
In 2007, for about 48 hours, I took care of a 21-year-old HIV patient who had come into the hospital to get a comprehensive work-up because his cocktail seemed to be failing. And while he was not yet in fulminant end-stage AIDS, it was clear that his body was also starting to fail.
He was a fairly amendable patient but had been in the hospital enough to be burned-out on the parade of medical students, (probably unnecessary) specialists, curious onlookers and rotating staff. As a result he asked that the number of people on his medical team and visits to his room be limited. So a lot of his nursing duties fell to me: collecting the single set of vital signs that he would allow; offering the daily physical exam that he consistently and graciously declined; collecting and double checking his food order which was always blank. He explained that the recent round of meds really hurt his stomach and he simply wasn’t hungry. All he ever wanted were pitchers of water and –once or twice a day– two of those little 4-cookie snack packs of Lorna Doones. It wasn’t taste, but the familiar texture and warm memories of afternoons at a beloved grandmother’s house that made him eat them.
Though I only knew this gentleman for 2-days, I think of him every time I eat a Lorna Doone. When given a choice of cookies, I select to eat a few on his behalf. My fidelity to this tiny, iterative homage for someone I barely knew made me wonder, what makes people indelible?
- First (and sometimes only) impressions When we first meet people we don’t know if we will get along or if we will ever meet again (or if we will care about that). Because everything you learn about someone new to you is a bright star on a very bare background, I think those little details stand out more, are crisper and held more dear. We take for granted that if we know someone very well of course! we will see them again. I think this is part of the pain and anger of an unexpected death. We feel cheated out of that moment we knew was coming to grab more details that keep that person precious to us.
- Quirks It is regrettable then that we get so accustomed to aspects of friends’ personalities or their mannerisms that they start to blend into the background. We become deaf to them. Stop and think for a moment about your best friends or loved ones. What are the ‘Lorna Doone’ moments you might remember and celebrate them by (even while they are still alive!)?
- Mutually human moments I didn’t stay in medicine long enough to rack up thousands of patient experiences, so that category of memory is rather uncluttered. Still I am often surprised to find that it is usually not the patient I treated for weeks-on-end who blazes bright in my recollection, but the one who smiled approval at me in a particularly intense moment, or the one who showed incredible compassion out of the quagmire of his own luckless life. You never know who is inside that shell you may have written-off because of appearance or station in life. Be open to seeing the best in everyone and you will be amazed what comes into view.
- Our common pain Being alive is a brutal, wearing experience. Modernity, mechanization, expensive coffee drinks and indoor plumbing (among other things) have really helped to sooth the some people’s daily walk through the pricker patch of existence, but we all have scars from moments of deep fear, heartbreak, loss. The moments when those sore places rise up and meet the same spot in another human are (to me, at least) the surest evidence we are not alone. That any two of us have more in common than we don’t.
- The importance of ritual in a secular society A friend of mine pointed out recently the lack of cultural norms around big deals like death. Eating a Lorna Doone for this patient, wearing those rubber bracelets, eating at your great uncle’s favorite diner every year on his birthday (even after he passes) provide comfort. Perhaps ritual parcels out these incredibly strong emotions (joys and sorrows and griefs) into manageable bits. Perhaps it’s just a repeated wish that someone remember us fondly. Whether ritual has a point or not, I find it a treasured anchor to existence, another thread that ties all of humanity together.
- Rehearsing mourning or Sorrows shared are halved There’s that saying about joys shared are doubled, sorrows shared are halved. Perhaps eating a Lorna Doone is about sampling the sadness of his loss against the inevitable loss of someone even more dear to me. Trying to get my sea legs. Perhaps I think I am sharing the sorrow of those who loved him and hopefully taking some of the burden. In the final accounting, I don’t think sparing a positive thought for anyone is ever a bad thing.
I don’t know what happened to that patient. When he checked himself out of the hospital all his tests indicated that his cocktail still wasn’t working and though he wasn’t getting worse, he wasn’t getting better. He may have succumbed to both physiological and psychological defeat. Or the pace of new, better drugs may have found him a cocktail that put him back on the upswing. He was precious to someone and a little bit of that resonated when he passed through my life. So I’ll just continue to hope for the best and have a Lorna Doone each time to seal that wish.