Departures and Reunions


Riding his bike, an elderly man approached the intersection. His military green cadet hat and faded jacket looked familiar.

Pbu! Jum reap sua! (Uncle! Hello!)” I crossed the street to meet him, placed my palms together, under my chin, and bowed my head. In Khmer, we call our friends, and our patients, family.

But he didn’t always feel the same way about me.

~ ~ ~

Ten years ago

“It hurts!!! My arm hurts! Why does no one listen to me?” he complained.

“Well, your doctor said there’s no bleeding, no infection, and nothing is broken,” I tried to reassure him.

“But I’m in pain. NO ONE here helps me!” The door slammed behind him.

After he left, I asked a colleague for his advice on how to help him; I just couldn’t figure him out.

“What’s his story?” he replied.

“What do you mean?”

“He’s a trauma survivor, right? What’s the trauma? I bet you that has something to do with that,” he explained.  “Find out the story.”

A few weeks later, my patient returned to the clinic. “I am sorry you’re still having pain,” I started.  “By the way, I was wondering… what kind of work did you do before, when you lived in Cambodia?”

“Ahh…” his gaze turned away from me, and towards the white wall of the exam room.  “I was a soldier,” his voice softened.

“A soldier! In 1975?! How did you survive?!” My jaw dropped. Most soldiers had been imprisoned by the communist regime, the Khmer Rouge, and killed.

“I don’t know. I can’t tell you how I survived. I nearly died so many times.  It’s so funny, right? As a soldier, I had no fear! I got shot at, I was shackled. I stared death in the face! But now, I’m old. And this pain. I am scared of this pain.”

I nodded.  It was like the light in the room, formerly a harsh, fluorescent white, had gradually shifted to a warm yellow. I was seeing him with a new lens, for the first time. He was a former soldier. A survivor.

“Hm. I am feeling a little better already. I’ll wait till my next appointment to see my doctor then, Soapie. Thank you for listening to me,” he smiled and left.

~ ~ ~

“So where you been?” he steadied his bike, one foot on one pedal, the other on the ground.

“Ahhh… I was on maternity leave,” I explained.

“Oh yeah! You had a baby!! How is she?” he asked.

“She’s good,” I replied. “I meant to tell you, I’m no longer working with your PCP on the family team, so when you call your doctor, I won’t be there since I work in another department now.”

“Is that so?” he raised his arm, lifted his hat, and scratched his head.

“I am sorry I didn’t get to say a formal goodbye, Pbu (uncle).”

“You won’t be there anymore? You work where now?”  he repeated the words, in denial.

“I work in the maternity (OB) department now. You could visit me there.”

“HA! My wife’s too old to have more babies! At least you have told me…now I know.” He grinned, stepped back onto the pedals, and biked away.

~ ~ ~

As a nurse, I have had the privilege of being invited into someone’s life, often at the most crucial moments:  meeting those who are fleeing the unspoken, hugging a family member after my patient has taken her last breath, or treating a patient as they are gasping for air.

But sometimes, there are less dramatic moments too, like departures from patient relationships that took years to build trust, and bittersweet reunions at the street corner.

Each moment is precious, and reminds me how blessed I am, to be a nurse.

~ ~ ~

Happy Nurse’s Week to my fellow nurses out there!

And a big thank you to all the members on the medical team who help us in providing patient care : first responders, CNA’s, MA’s, pharmacists, physicians, physician assistants, microbiologists, xray and ultrasound technicians, respiratory therapists, secretaries, housekeeping, maintenance, security,  etc… we couldn’t do our jobs without all of you!

7 thoughts on “Departures and Reunions

  1. Meeting people when they are feeling their worst, you find a way to establish a rapport. I hope you are feeling appreciated on this Nurses Appreciation Week. I liked your tale and your elderly patient. How lovely that you still feel that connection.

  2. This was such an intriguing insight into both your work and this person’s life. I wanted to know more about your interactions with him – did you only meet him three times? Did you learn more about him and how he managed his trauma? Did his aching arm resolve? I have so many questions. It was also a very pleasant insight into your traditions and culture (we also call our elders uncle/aunty in my culture).

  3. Sophia, I was with you at lunch when you consulted with Jim about this patient. I was immediately impressed by your caring attitude and by Jim’s wisdom. You two are amazing, among the amazing team of people who care for the underserved community. I feel so honored to have had this experience.

  4. The burden continues to fall on those with the least resources. Even now we’ve realized how dependent our societies are on health care workers our institutional structures don’t seem to want to change to support them. Thank you for all that you’ve done and continue to do. Hoping this finds you safe and well.

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