It was late Sunday afternoon one spring day and I was on-call that weekend. Being on-call since Friday night, and after a grueling day of taking care of sick patients in the ICU, performing procedures, seeing consults in the wards, and after almost 10 hours of continuously seeing patients in the hospital that day, I felt so exhausted and mentally drained, and just wanted to finish my rounds and go home. My last stop will be the Oncology floor.
I entered the dimly lit room and saw the patient lying quietly in his bed. His eyes were close and his mouth was half-open with an oxygen mask covering it. His breathing was labored as his chest heaved with every breath. It was obvious he was silently suffering. He has lung cancer, and in spite of the best of medical care and technology, with rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, his cancer continued to advance and now it has metastasized all over his body. He is one of those poor souls that I as a doctor have nothing else to offer, but sympathy and comfort.
I approached his bed and greeted him softly. I perfunctory asked him how he is doing though I know the answer to my question. I was surprised when he said “I’m fine”. Maybe his answer was perfunctory too, or maybe he was tired of telling the doctors all that ills him, knowing that we cannot offer him anything anyway, or maybe he knows something that I don’t.
As I was talking to him, I happened to glance in his window and saw something that stopped me in mid sentence. Just outside my patient’s room window was a tree with a bird’s nest sitting in one of its branches. It was less than 15 feet from where I was standing. I can clearly see three baby robins with their heads bobbing out of the nest with their eyes still unopened and with their mouth gaping, waiting for their parents to feed them. It was a fascinating sight to see to say the least.
“So you have seen my robins”, stated my patient, as my thoughts was drawn back to him. “Those hungry baby robins make their parents very busy”, he continued, his eyes were now open and his mouth now with a half-smile, as I sensed some excitement in his voice. Obviously he had watched those baby robins and somehow might have given him temporary joy as it diverted his concern from his own affliction.
After I examined my patient, I silently headed to the door and again glanced back at the window. The similarity and yet the stark difference of the sight hit me. Eyes close, mouth open – one prayerfully waiting for mercy, hoping that his misery will soon end as he pants for every breath; the other expectantly waiting for sustenance as it begs to keep up its existence. One life is losing its battle and nearing its end; the other just starting its struggle as it begins its passage. And yet both will not pass without the watchful eye of the all-knowing One.
As a familiar hymn goes “If His eye is on the sparrow” (and the robins too), “and I know He watches me”….yes, even when I am going through suffering. Perhaps my patient knew this and found solace on this fact as I saw peace and reassurance in his face permeating through his agony.
Few days later, another patient was enjoying the view on the window with the baby robins…. my patient passed gently into the night.