At first, I didn’t see her. She was her husband’s shadow, following him closely from behind.
His chest heaved, and his neck muscles retracted, as he fought for air.
Please help my husband, her eyes pleaded. She fidgeted beside his bed.
His skin pale, his lips faded to a blue grey. “ហត់ចង់ងប់ (I’m so tired, I could die),” he panted.
We were losing time.
My hands snipped the tubing, jammed it into the adapter of the oxygen machine, connected it to the mask, and slid the mask over his face.
She watched me, without a word, careful not to distract me from my work.
After several minutes, his lips changed from blue to pink.
She sighed a sigh of relief.
~ ~ ~
“អ្នកក្រូ (Teacher of medicine)… you’re here from America?” she asked. With her hair in a ponytail, she appeared younger than her husband, but worry had creased wrinkles near the corners of her eyes.
So he made it through the night.
“Yes,” I replied. “For a month.”
“Do everything you can,” she placed her palms together, brought her hands towards her nose, and bowed her head.
My heart sank.
~ ~ ~
On the 3rd day, his breaths were short and rapid.
His doctor ordered blood work, but hospital protocol required payment prior to procedures being performed.
She turned the corner and dashed to the billing office.
I didn’t know she could run that fast.
~ ~ ~
The results came back on Thursday.
With his history of AIDS, he had developed a new infection, and needed urgent antibiotics. It was a medication I had infused hundreds of times before, in the States. But no hospital in Cambodia or nearby Vietnam supplied this medication.
“We have to fly it in from France,” the doctor explained. “It should arrive by Sunday.”
“បង (Honey)…hang on until Sunday, okay?” she whispered, wiping the sweat off his forehead with a washcloth.
She fed him spoonfuls of rice soup. She fetched us when the power went out so we could connect him to emergency oxygen tanks. She emptied his urinal after he voided.
She was his alarm, his call light… his everything.
~ ~ ~
He had a rough night.
His brows narrowed and he grimaced with each inspiration. Despite using a breathing machine from another hospital, he was declining.
“Let’s give morphine to ease his breathing,” his doctor recommended.
The medicine provided relief, for a moment.
“Just a few more days, you’re gonna make it,” his wife cooed, brushing his bangs out of his eyes.
In the hallway, my tears pooled in a puddle of defeat.
~ ~ ~
The clear sky cast a perfect blue upon the sea, warm sand scrunched between my toes, and waves lapped upon my feet.
We had the weekend off, seeking respite at the beach. But my mind remained in the hospital.
Did he get his antibiotics yet?
~ ~ ~
Monday morning, I passed the nurses station and went straight to his room.
He was gone. He had died yesterday, before his first dose of antibiotics.
Taking a deep breath, I tried to make sense of it all…
I cared for him for a week, built a rapport with him and his family, and now…
I had a new patient sitting in the same room.
But his wife…
She cared for him for years, loved him with an unfailing love, and now…
she was a single parent mother.
“I loved you
With all my heart and soul
Only you made me whole.
But it’s easier said than done…
I used to think it was so strong
Cracked open heart.”
– Wang Leehom, 《裂心》”Cracked Heart”