He came from jail. He had been arrested a few days ago and started hallucinating. Alcohol withdrawal. A not uncommon sight in the hospitals of the Navajo Nation, he was taken to the ICU when the standard medications couldn’t control the shakes, the delirium. I met him the next morning, restrained to the bed, for his own safety. I greeted him and he gave some short answers, still with some tremors. I asked him why he was there and he said he thought it was because of his diabetes. I told him about the withdrawal and he just looked down. He didn’t have much else to say; I went to see my other patients.
He stayed in the hospital a few more days, fighting the symptoms. He also had abnormalities on his studies on his liver that we were studying so over the days we got to spend some more time together. I saw him sketching daily, but didn’t think much of it, saw it as something to pass the time. On the day we found out his liver results, damage due to prolonged alcohol use, I went to talk to him again and also to send him home, as he was doing much better. I explained what was happening, what was to follow and the importance of staying away from alcohol, which he promised to do.
I then noticed the sketch he had been working on; it was stunning. I asked him if I could take a picture of it and he shyly looked away, telling me he drew it for me. I was amazed. Here was a man that was considered a drunk that was in jail, here for complications of alcohol abuse, here was a man that others thought caused his own problems, and here was a man that was not only superbly talented but also one of the most polite and grateful people that I had ever met.
Every day I’m reminded that people aren’t defined by their baggage, by their brief moments of sickness, weakness, vulnerability that bring them to the hospital. They’re not the diabetic, the heart attack, the cirrhotic, the drug seeker; they’re people who have names and stories and not just diseases.
My patient handed over the drawing, shook my hand and asked to take a photo with me, which I was thrilled to do. I met his girlfriend, learned a bit more about his life. As he left, he asked me to be his primary care doctor. I’ll be seeing him next week.
Lena Wong, MD 2015 HEAL Initiative Fellow