My 74-year-old mother went to the hospital last week complaining of severe stomach cramps. As a diabetic, she had been piously watching her diet, because more than anything else, she was afraid of hospitals. In truth, she dreaded hospital bills more than her illness.
When told that her doctors were out, she insisted on being brought home, hoping to outlast her pain over the weekend. But she could not leave. My brother who was accompanying her was stuck in the parking area. While waiting at the hospital canteen with one of my sisters, she felt dizzy and cold, and began to shake. Against her wish, she had to be admitted as an emergency case.
Her doctor, who was contacted, immediately ordered an ultrasound. Now, one can read an ultrasound image in a variety of ways, depending upon one’s conscientiousness and thoroughness. As luck would have it, an old acquaintance saw my brother at the waiting lounge. They had been graduate students at the same time in the same city in Europe many years ago.
He turned out to be the head of the department. Like a friend, he offered to do the ultrasound himself. The detailed report he prepared gave the doctors who took care of my mother the first real basis of what was troubling her – a stone blocking the biliary duct.
She was admitted on a Thursday. On Friday, a gastro-intestinal specialist to whom she was referred took a look at her and the ultrasound report. He prescribed antibiotics and ordered an endoscopy, which meant inserting a fiber optic scanner into her esophagus to get a clear view of her stomach. This was scheduled for the following Monday.
Why Monday? Why not Saturday or Sunday, mother asked me. Philosophically, I muttered, “contingencies of a weekend.” I didn’t know then that her doctor was, in fact, going to Hong Kong for the weekend.
On Saturday, she began to shiver like she was in Alaska in deep winter. It was the infection wildly spreading inside her intestines. She told me later that she was waiting to throw up blood. She was dying and she knew it. And her doctor was not around.
Another doctor, to whom she was later endorsed, saw her and read the same ultrasound report. He promptly ordered the endoscopy, not tomorrow nor Monday, but right then and there. But it was a weekend, and the two specialists authorized by the hospital to perform this delicate procedure were both out – one was in Hong Kong, and the other somewhere where no patient could reach him.
This young man did not feel qualified enough to do it himself, so he called a colleague in another hospital and explained the situation. In less than half an hour, my half-dazed mother was carried into an ambulance and brought to a small hospital across the city. There, everything and everyone was ready. A young Chinoy surgeon performed a life-saving procedure with the endoscope, creating a bypass which allowed the accumulated fluids to flow out of the clogged duct.
I do not exactly understand what was done and how it was done. But my mother survived that crisis. A few days later, her first doctor came back from Hong Kong, and callously announced that he would do a second endoscopy. “If I need one,” mother said, “make sure that you ask that young man from the other hospital.”
The contingencies of hospital practice barred the young doctor from examining a patient at a hospital in which he was not accredited. But mother was prepared to change hospitals just so she could pay homage to this young man’s talent. Luckily, she did not need to move. On my family’s insistence, the rules gave way to simple decency and medical virtuosity.
These days when mother smiles, I could see that she is not feigning comfort. She still minds the cost of a hospital stay. This last one makes her worry that she may not be able to play Santa to her grandchildren this year. But she feels well — for the first time in many years.
By the sheer accident of a Hong Kong weekend, her original doctor could not attend to her. Instead, she was delivered into the hands of a capable specialist, who happened to be at his clinic on a lazy Saturday, rather than elsewhere. He was actually on his way to lunch, he was to say later.
Instead, he found himself on that day, rather like the philosopher Pascal, “attached to a corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am more in this place than in another, nor why this little time that is given me to live is assigned me at this point more than another out of all the eternity that has preceded me and out of all that will follow me.”
Most of us turn to faith or reason to make sense of the lucky or sometimes tragic convergence of events. This is how we give meaning to life’s many accidents. “We are all too ready to forget,” Freud reminds us, “that in fact everything to do with our life is chance, from our origin out of the meeting of spermatozoon and ovum onwards.” In short, contingency.
“This is your gift of a second life,” my sister said to my mother. In the metaphor of the “gift”, she seeks to remind her of life’s value – something to open, enjoy, reinvent, and share with others. Thus, once again, chance itself is found unworthy as an explanation for the way things are.
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