This is the last month of my pain clinic rotation. The commuting has been draining. On the other hand, I've had the chance to take in the scenery on the way. The hills in the Judean Wilderness are still green, but there is just a hint of the dryness of summer at the threshold. The wheat fields are verdent and lush. But I know that after passover they will slowly turn yellow and the wheat will be harvested by Shavuot.
One thing I've noticed over the years. We all wear a uniform of sorts and it often masks the person inside. Patients wear pajamas so they are different from us, the staff. The nurses have their uniforms and they are given orders and tasks to perform. OR staff in scrubs with caps and masks. Only the eyes give any indication of humanity.
But then, I see a patient or a nurse on her way home in civilian clothes. All of a sudden, they look like people. The hectic days, the impossible work load, the drive to get it all done, they distract us from seeing the person in front of us. Every now and then, I seize the opportunity to talk, actually talk to a patient. I've never regretted doing so.
Every person has a story to tell. Especially in this country, most people have seen their share of hardship, drama, upheaval, pathos and ethos. But some have incredible stories to tell. Of the hundreds and even thousands of patients I have treated, these stand out and I may even remember them years later.
One morning an elderly woman came to the pain clinic accompanied by her husband. Right away they seemed to be a colorful couple. The woman explained her problem. She complained of pain in her shoulder. She was depressed at the loss of function. She said that she spent her entire life with farming tools in hand and felt helpless. Her husband seemed impatient at his wifes verbosity and insisted on conveying the information in the most concise manner possible. Despite his apparent bad temper, something in his manner or perhaps the way they looked at each other told me that there was more to the story than meets the eye. These people were the salt of the earth, and much more.
After reviewing her medical history and the physical examination, the pain specialist decided on a series of injections performed under x-ray guidance. Usually I take part in the treatment (that is, after all, the reason I'm doing the rotation). But I never made it into the treatment room. The husband asked me if I spoke Russian to which I replied nay. (I'm somewhat of an anomaly in the local scene, an anesthesiologist who speaks only Hebrew (OK and some English)). Noticing his accent (who doesn't have one in this country?), I asked when they came to Israel.
With no warning whatsoever, the following story unfolded: They came from Poland in 1949. This most certainly meant they are Holocaust survivors. But he continued. The were childhood sweathearts and war orphans. After the war they wandered from Poland to Czechoslovakia and then Austria and finally ended up in France. In 1947 at Marseilles, they boarded a ship bound for the Land of Israel. That ship was called the Exodus. The story of the Exodus is one of the most dramatic incidents of prestatehood Israel and was the inspiration for the book by Leon Uris. The book, in turn was made into a film by Otto Preminger. The ship was intercepted by the British and eventually sent to Hamberg. Of the over 4000 passengers, over 600 were orphans including the couple who came into the clinic that day. Only two years later, after the State of Israel was established would they come to settle here.
After a short time the treatment was finished. As they got up to leave the husband thanked me and shook my hand. I suppose that I was the first stranger who had ever heard his story.
Had I not asked the question, I would have remained ignorant of who this couple were, and I would never have had the pleasure of hearing the story first hand. I can only wonder how many stories like this have I missed for not asking the question.