The automatic doors to the intensive care unit slid silently open. Once inside, both doors snapped shut behind me. I was just beginning an unwanted eight-hour shift. The atmosphere engulfed me and clung like a cloak. It was common knowledge that this unit was one of the saddest in the hospital.
“We have a new admission. He’s only just arrived,” announced a colleague as I approached the nurses’ station. “His name is Max* and that’s all we know about him at the moment.” A strange expression washed over her face and then she grinned that special grin of hers.
“Good luck. See you tomorrow.”
“OK,” I replied and she was gone.
“I knew it, I just knew it!” I fretted to myself as soon as my colleague was out of earshot. “That’s just my luck.”
I don’t relish doing new admissions, because they are very time consuming.
As I walked into his room, I stopped abruptly and tried to absorb what I was seeing. His face and hands were covered with dirt, his fingernails were long and his hair was matted and dirty.
As I stood watching, he started to cough. His body shook, then went into spasms; and as the mucous became dislodged by the coughing, he spat into a dirty rag that he pulled from his coat pocket.
I took a deep breath; muttering thoughts of disgust, I walked into his room.
“Where are his belongings?” I politely asked the ambulance attendant, who was still in the room, trying to sound professional, like the person I perceived myself to be.
“There are just these boots,” answered the attendant. “And this piece of folded paper that was stuffed into the bottom of the left one.” He handed me the crumpled, soiled piece of paper. Because of its appearance, I carelessly dropped it in the empty drawer next to his bed.
“Where did you find him?” I inquired.
“Two children found him under the bridge near the cemetery. He was covered with old newspapers.”
“How do you know his name?” I asked. “Did he tell you?”
“Yes, but that’s all he would say.”
The attendant manoeuvred the gurney, smiled and left without another word.
I went over to Max and cautiously touched his hand. “Hello, Max, my name is Gwen and I’ll be looking after you this afternoon.”
He briefly shifted his gaze in my direction, then turned and continued looking out the window. As I stood studying this man, I noticed the boots and slowly bent over to pick them up.
Once again, his eyes briefly shifted, but this time to the boots. They were brown and to my amazement, were reasonably clean. I wondered why he would wear worn-out sneakers when he had boots that were virtually new and in almost perfect condition. I placed the boots inside the locker next to his bed.
A few minutes later, Dr Grant walked in. He shook Max’s hand, sat down beside him and quietly talked to him. It was obvious to me that Max recognised Dr Grant, but he still chose not to communicate. Dr Grant carried out his examination and ordered the appropriate treatment, an IV because of dehydration.
As I walked back to the nurses’ station with Dr Grant, I asked him if he knew Max.
“Yes,” he replied and proceeded to tell me Max’s story.
“We did medicine together. We were friends. Max became a neurologist.”
He paused. I was more than intrigued.
“Nearly a year ago, his wife and three boys were killed in a car accident. Sometime after the accident, he chose to withdraw from society. I’m afraid the past has now caught up with him. I’m transferring him in the morning to a special clinic.”
“Are the boots of any significance?” I asked.
“A few years ago, his boys wanted to surprise him with something special for his birthday, so his wife suggested boots. They saved all their pocket money, and his wife made up the difference.”
Dr Grant fell silent then, as if pondering something.
“You know, I can understand why he doesn’t wear them. They will never wear out and I guess encapsulated in those boots is the tangible evidence of past, precious memories. Come to think of it, I don’t think I would wear them either."
“I wonder how many people are discarded by society because of their appearance and because they refuse to give all the facts.”
By this time, Dr Grant was needed with another patient and so quickly left.
A few hours later, when I returned to Max, he continued to ignore my presence. He was still looking out the window and this time I allowed my eyes to follow his. The golden sun was just setting and the lake and mountains merged as one into a kaleidoscope of colour.
I remembered the dirty, tattered piece of paper I had so flippantly placed in the drawer. Gingerly, I took it out and carefully opened it.
Transfixed, I read the following words:
“Do you love me, Lord? I can only lie now at your feet. I have no tears. I cannot weep, for now I have no emotion. I’m drained of life and all devotion. The warmth of the sun has forever set. The blackness engulfs me to such a depth. I’m frozen, still and lie lifeless forever.”
Tears stung my eyes. What a lesson I had learned that afternoon. I had judged Max on his appearance; and now, as I looked at him, I felt compassion, respect and awe. Shaken and humbled, I placed the piece of paper back in the drawer.
How incredible an enlightening moment of truth can be. The dark shadows of night were now rapidly replacing the golden glow of sunset.
When the automatic doors eventually snapped shut behind me that night and the cold air hit my face, I knew that my brief encounter with Max had changed my life.
* Max is a fictitious character. However, the details of this story are based on true events in the author’s life.