Once Upon a Starry Night

During my medical clerkship rotation in University of Sto. Tomas (UST), we had a patient in the Neurology ward, a girl named Melissa, who was about 7 years old. Her little body had been racked by illness, and every day she quietly cries in pain,  “Tatay, nanay, ang sakit sakit po ng ulo ko” (Dad, Mom, my head really hurts). But in spite of her suffering she remained courteous to the nurses and doctors, always answering with “po” and “opo”.

Melissa’s family is poor and they can hardly afford the medications let alone the ancillary tests needed for her work-up. Because a head CT scan cost a fortune during those days (and still is today), this imaging study was not immediately performed until the necessary paper works from the social services has been approved.

I was on-call that night when finally, Melissa was scheduled to have the head CT. It was around 10 at night when we accompanied her to the CT Radiology suite. Since she was in the Charity division of the UST hospital and the CT suite is located in the Pay or Main Hospital, we had to take her for a little trip across the campus.

It was a clear night and we took a shortcut across the parking lot instead of the covered hallways. While lying on the stretcher, Melissa saw the beautiful starry sky above us. She requested that we stop at the middle of the open lot, so she can gaze a little bit longer on the clear sky. And for a moment she forgot her pain while basking in the beauty of a starry night.

Upon entering the main hospital, the hallways were empty and dimly lit. As we turned a corner we passed a statue of Santo Nino, which was glowing with lights, shining like a beacon in the dark night.

Melissa requested to stop again in front of the statue, so she can linger a little longer as she gaze there in awe. “Ang ganda ganda po ng Sto. Nino” (the Sto. Nino looks so beautiful), she stated. It was a sight to see – a frail child tortured with disease, finds peace by looking at the face of the Blessed Child.

In the CT suite, our worst suspicion became a reality: Melissa’s head CT scan did not just show a brain tumor, but multiple tumors of varying sizes giving the appearance of a starry night. It was a death sentence for the little girl.

It was almost midnight when we headed back to the Charity ward. Melissa’s father, who was with us, was holding back tears, trying to hide his sorrow from his daughter. We were silent as we walked our way back, with our heads hung low, except for Melissa who was oblivious of the gravity of her prognosis, still reveling at the starry sky.

When we arrived at the Neurology  ward, Melissa asked her father to sit with her by the window so she can still look at the stars. They both sat there until her tired little body gave in to exhaustion and finally falling asleep.

Since then, for a couple of nights, you will find a feeble child in the Neurology ward, sitting by the window, suffering in pain, but finding comfort at the beauty of the stars.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

One morning, as I entered the Neurology ward, I glanced at Melissa’s bed. It was empty, with the mattress rolled up.

She peacefully passed away into the night.

Looking back after many years, in my dizzying and hurried schedule, I feel that sometimes, I need to stop for a while. Perhaps gaze up into the sky. Appreciate the small things that I have been taking for granted. A beautiful sunrise, a warm sunny day, a sincere smile, or a simple “thank you” from one of my patients. Perhaps I should see the world through the eyes of a child like Melissa – to see the beauty of this world instead of its difficulties, to see the faint light of the stars instead of cursing the dark night.

I was in deep thought when I was interrupted by my son, “Daddy, come outside, look at the full moon”. I cannot miss this. I have to go.

6 thoughts on “Once Upon a Starry Night

    • Thanks Ruel. Melissa’s story was my first exposure of how cruel the reality of medicine can be. But those sad realities can still enlighten us and give us hope. Thank you for visiting.

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