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Volume 1, Issue 1
Spring 2005:

A Privileged Seat

Tucker Slingerland

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Spring; 1(1):a4

In the middle of a flat open field, two roads meet. At their intersection, a lone weathered sign bears the name of the patient we have come to visit.

I have driven past this sign many times, always admiring the family farm that we are now approaching — its large barn, modest farmhouse, and silos stretching high above the small grove of trees surrounding the barnyard.

As I sit looking out the car window, the doctor I am accompanying, my mentor, describes how his patient had refused to come to the hospital when his chronic lung condition had taken a turn for the worse.

Although I was honored when the doctor asked me to come with him on this visit, I feel ambivalent about meeting a patient who clearly wants to spend his last precious moments with his family in the sanctuary of his own home. My concern is largely related to several experiences I had when asked to assist with dying patients as a third year medical student working in a large urban hospital. Performing chest compressions while standing over a patient surrounded by a mass of frantic residents, I would often wonder what it felt like for the patient to look up at me in the final seconds of his life, eye to eye with a stranger.

At the end of the long dirt driveway, the doctor parks his car next to several others and greets a panting, well-fed dog by name.

The doctor leaves his stethoscope and pager on the dashboard; he brings nothing with him except me. The family greets him as though he were a relative living a few farms down the road. I meet the patient's wife, great-grandson, and many other visitors as well.

We come to a large living room with open windows that rise from knee height to near the ceiling. Long thin curtains shift slightly in the breeze. The patient lies still on a small bed with his head propped up. Covered in quilts, he looks frail; but when he raises his hand slightly to shake mine, I am struck by the clearness of his blue eyes. Working hard to breath, he asks me to repeat my last name. I do, and a broad smile comes over his face; he takes a long look at me.

The old farmer had known my great-great-grandfather; having met me, he has now known five generations of my family. For the next hour, his breathing seems to improve as he tells old stories and gestures with his hands, describing the evolution of his farm and surrounding community. He provides me with a glimpse of over one-hundred-and-fifty-years of family history and a way of life I have not known.

Because of his long relationship with the old farmer, the doctor knew that it would be appropriate to introduce me to his dying patient. On this, his last visit to with the farmer, the doctor is offered a privileged seat; he sits amongst the patient's family listening quietly to stories of a life well lived. When he notices his patient's eyes are focused on mine, he also witnesses the inspiration of a student, the farmer's newest friend.

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