It’s 8 o’clock at night, and my notes still aren’t done.
There are no beds in the hospital.
All because of that mutated strain of this year’s flu carelessly rebelling like a teen with repressed angst against the immune systems of its carriers. But like most stories of rebellion, the fallout always seems to affect innocent bystanders more than those who incited the rebellion in the first place.
I close my eyes, purse my lips, and mentally face-palm myself, regretting my stance on white coats as antagonists to the doctor-patient power dynamic. Thinking about the particles floating through the air—molecules of fecal matter and bile-ridden, lunches clinging to my finest, salmon-colored shirt as I trudge across the hospital towards the team room to work on my notes.
My notes that still aren’t done.
Molecules that mist against the foundation on my pale face. Take up residence on the split ends of my long, free flowing hair.
I haven’t signed out to the night team yet.
Because I was pronouncing a patient dead.
An 82-year-old woman with a prosthetic infection of her right hip that lit up a tagged white blood cell scan like a 15-year-old boy’s sheets under a black light. An infection that neither IV antibiotics nor 2 previous wash outs could fix.
Surrounded by family and loved ones in the hospital, she left this world with the same graceful delicacy that she clutched my hand earlier the previous morning on rounds. And when she passed, a sickly, fresh scent seeped through the cracks in the closed door of her private room on the third floor of the hospital. The nurses sprayed peppermint-scented cleaner in the hallways almost every hour to mask the smell of vomit and feces from this year’s flu in an attempt to give the impression that the air was somehow clean.
But, for me, nothing about this night feels clean.
Not my clothes. Or my hair. Or my skin.
Or my soul.
Because a woman has just died.
And all I can focus on is how much I hate that peppermint scent. Vile. Repulsive. Damning me with the furtive conviction that I will never again be able to chew gum of that flavor.
But before I can escape these peppermint-scented halls, I still have 3 notes to do, a team to sign out to the residents covering at night, and a patient death packet to fill out.
My jaw clamps down as I trudge my way back to the team room where I shut the door and forcefully exhale the smell of sh**.
But I still feel like sh**.
Because I am not a granddaughter standing in an unfamiliar room, head buried in her palms, gasping for air of any scent or flavor having just lost the woman who raised me.
I am not the one who left the airport too late to whisper one final thank you before bidding farewell.
And now more than anything I wish I wore my white coat, not for the particles of feces or vomit, but so that I wouldn’t have to be haunted by that rancid peppermint stench that clung to every part of my being.
But a white coat doesn’t protect your soul.
And mine was currently aching.
Aching for every family member with whom I spent hours discussing the severity of illness during family meetings. Aching that the tissues and retrieved cups for water did nothing to quench the salty tears and parched mouths that cried out in muffled sobs as I pronounced their loved one expired.
Aching over the multiple phone calls to social workers, hospice, and even the insurance company to get her to a more comfortable environment before her death.
Aching for the woman who told me stories of her life as a 20-something, exotic dancer in New Jersey, breaking up bar fights and being the cause of them at the same time.
Aching for that old, precious soul I spent 14 days straight with and came to cherish as both patient, teacher, and a very quick friend.
And despite knowing she likely couldn’t smell. That her family likely didn’t care in that moment. That she was probably going to be incontinent anyway. The exhausted human being that is me in this moment aches from the conviction she deserved a better smell as she took her final shallow breath of air on this earth.
She deserved sage roasting in the crackling, wild fields of a reservation that told of her untamed youth. Notes of vanilla in dark, finely aged bourbon that told of her sweetness and feist. Oak and ashen laden embers that told of the fires she started in the hearts of all the men who once loved her and the ones who never stopped.
She deserved better than peppermint and sh**.
But I don’t have time to process that right now.
I don’t have time.
Because it’s 8 o’clock at night.
And my notes still aren’t done.