Today I made a library run that has me questioning my writing. Anna Quindlen has a new book, Write for Your Life, and she’s got me rethinking the kinds of writing I have done and those I still do. In one section Quindlen describes “parallel charts.” By this, she means a doctor, nurse, police officer et cetera must, of course, record the facts of an interaction. The more humane idea is that anyone dealing with high stress situations might be helped to write a personal story of a difficult or intense situation. This is not entered into the official records, nor is it shared. It’s an act of self-soothing or insight. Brilliant, the “invention” of Rita Charon at Columbia, these charts are private, meant to acknowledge patients as human beings instead of “a collection of symptoms.”
So, here’s one of my own. I was once a float nurse in a small hospital where serious illness was treated on the “Special Care Ward.” A very elderly woman was dehydrated and much in need of IV fluids. I attempted to insert the IV but accessing her hand and arm veins were beyond my skill. I called the night-float doctor who would be allowed to insert an IV in a vein in her foot. He too failed, and it was easy to see that she would not live much longer. And what that doctor said has stayed with me, “And this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper,” an excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” I’ve never forgotten that wisdom, an admission of our inability to save her in the face of death. And that doctor’s sensitive acknowledgement of our failures.