Saturday, January 29, 2005

Saint Crispin's Day

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother...

-William Shakespeare, Henry V

Last month while waiting to be seated for dinner at one of those cookie-cutter type chain restaurants I spied an old acquaintance of mine - he and I had trained together. After exchanging greetings and a few observations on the pervasiveness of video games in the home we went our separate ways. While biting into a pita bread sandwich that both resembled and tasted like a UPS package I felt myself drifting backward in time to a large city hospital where I deposited the last three remaining years of my youth. My old pal and I were members of a platoon of doctors back then, engaged in surviving the boot camp for medical recruits called the internship. We were overwhelmed with desperately ill patients, subjected to surprise inspections by the commanding officer of the ICU, and always searching for a way to steal an extra hour of sleep. Unappreciated by the universe, we selfishly enjoyed the presence of our own company over all. We were truly the happy few. Now whenever we run into each other, like two old soldiers leaning on staffs, we trade tales of the glory days, thereby annoying spouses, children, food servers and anyone else within earshot. Given the right circumstances we might even salute each other and shout out the rallying cry of the intern:

"Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit to his full height!"

Quite an inspiring phrase, that - can one not blame us if our hearts quicken when once again we clasp hands and face the breach?

Actually, one could blame us, for we were not soldiers once...and young. We were just young, whiny doctors.

Lest anyone think that anyone's blood was shed during those adolescent years of instruction, let me doff the suit of armor and tell the truth about our reminiscences.

Our gatherings are not even close to a reunion of veterans, let alone the Grand Review of the Armies. When we get together it is more like old comedians sitting around a delicatessen at closing time, because if there was one thing we used as an anodyne for the stress of being in training, it was black humor. We never thought of ourselves as soldiers in battle or martyrs tied to the stake - we were just lowly doctors-in-training, available for abuse from all members of the same smiling hospital team seen advertised on commercials. In order to compensate for our insignificant status we mercilessly mocked everyone, including ourselves. For example, once I was ridiculed for months after an incident where I tried to become that species of doctor known as the eager beaver.

The event in question occurred while I was rotating on the Coronary Care Unit. A gentleman admitted after a heart attack kept developing ventricular tachycardia, a potentially fatal arrhythmia which must be converted to normal by shocking the heart. In order to avoid any delay in treatment, we placed two conductive pads on his chest and connected them to the defibrillator, which would then allow the rescuer to simply press a button to deliver life-restoring voltage to the heart.

Fascinated by this contraption, I marveled at how it jolted the patient both off the bed and back into the world of the living. One afternoon our man developed the fluttering rhythm while our attending cardiologist was lounging at the nurse's station. We all dashed into the room and instantly noted the problem oscillating across the patient's monitor. Unfortunately our leader had not been briefed about the labor-saving device and as I fired up the machine he placed his hands on the victim's chest and cried "Give me the paddles!"

I confess I too was a tad excited, for after hearing the word "Give" I promptly hit the switch, sending greased lightning into both patient and physician. Witnesses still talk about the backwards high jump record set on that day. I, of course, was equally electrified - with mortification. From that day on the attending wore leather gloves, and once the story got out my friends displayed their amazing gift of narrative by repeating it to any person not considered to be totally deaf.

I can imagine what the old warriors felt as they bent over a crackling fire and recounted their years of glory in the field for God and crown. In contrast, no matter how stressful our time together was, we never had to face an opponent trying to detach arm from body with a broadsword. We simply worked at a routine job interrupted by episodes of humor, or terror. Come to think of it, that is not an unrealistic description of a soldier's life. If there is one thing our respective bands share it is a tender memory of the times when we laughed together. That is one of the reasons why we still wear the white coat today.


At 1:42 AM, Blogger bronwyn said...

Another great post... Your writing is refreshingly cohesive.

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