Pectoriloquy |

Bedside Apology FREE TO VIEW

Paul Rousseau, MD
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Editor’s Note: Dr Rousseau is a hospice/palliative medicine physician/writer with 30 years experience, and is currently an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. He writes: “Grief is a never-ending emotion, one that waxes and wanes, arising when least expected. This poem is a reflection of my grief, and the regret that I should have done more for my wife as she lay dying.”

Reproduction of this article is prohibited without written permission from the American College of Chest Physicians (http://www.chestpubs.org/site/misc/reprints.xhtml).

© 2012 American College of Chest Physicians

Chest. 2012;141(5):1358. doi:10.1378/chest.11-1765
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It was a makeshift intensive care unit, the others overflowing with the sick and dying. She was
stationed by the lone bathroom, so the coming and going of nurses emptying bedpans and what
not was frequent and somewhat disturbing, if not for her, certainly for family members.
Three other souls lingered in beds in various states of illness, waiting for whatever lay ahead:
recovery, debility, death.
She was in the first bed, the greeter for the room, yet her voice was whispered and her breath
labored, so words were difficult. A pulse oximeter was taped to her ear, her fingers riddled with
ulcers. Her sister-in-law sat to the left in a hardened folding chair.
And then, right on time, the ritual began: the attending physician, astute leader of the medical
rabble, boldly entered followed by the hierarchal retinue of students, interns, residents, and a fellow
or two. The chart, positioned at the end of the bed, was grabbed, opened, and quickly scanned.
Trainees scrambled to look attentive, as trainees do, bedside postures preordained like hens
pleasing a rooster. Silence, save the noise from machines pumping fluids, antibiotics, and oxygen,
was evident. The attending physician made a few comments to the spectators, scribbled some
wisely words, placed the chart back into its secure position, and concluded the ritual. A smile, and
they were gone.
Next day, same thing, and the day after, and the day after, and the day after.
I wanted to say, “Speak to her, she’s still here, she’s still alive. Ask her questions, tell her what you
are going to do, what you want to do. Sit with her, touch her, be with her.”
But the time for my words passed, and for that I suffer, my sorrow stabbed by moments of regret. I
was weak and frozen at bedside. I know she would have wanted me to speak for her, to scream
words, to defend her, to know what to do for this treasoned betrayal of body.
I just know she would have, but fear strangled me, took my breath and time slipped too quickly.
And now, four plus long years past, I still struggle, and know that she would have wanted that—she
really would.
And for that, I apologize.
(For Pamela Rousseau, who died October 17, 2006)




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