The Nurse Who Would Not Meet My Eye

The nurse would not meet my eye.

Somehow that seemed fraught with meaning.

“I am so dead,” I thought.

I stood outside the door of my oncology consultant.

The waiting area behind me had a central garden with a fountain in it. Dozens of men and women sat patiently marking time before attending the periodic  life-or-death consultations that are the lot of a cancer patient.

Things hadn’t looked good for a couple of months. I had a failed major surgery due to the inoperable size of the tumour in my colon. They had moved to plan B, chemotherapy.

At that time a kindly locum GP had gently told me that some people choose to discontinue treatment if it made their last days too uncomfortable.

Now, the nurse who ushered me into the oncology consultant’s room wouldn’t look me in the eye.

“I am so dead,” I thought.

I reflected, as I walked in, that I shouldn’t get my hopes up. The prognosis wasn’t good. And as a grown-up in early middle-age I was just expected to cope with the fact I was dying. I had learnt recovering from surgery that there was no special treatment from busy medical staff on the hospital wards. There were a lot of people in my position. Everybody dies. The best of us manage to put a brave face on it.

All through that time I kept telling myself, “Live for today. You are alive today. That’s all that matters.”

I tried to imagine death as sleeping – a painless sleep – an anaesthetized  blackness.

Live for today is a good mantra that works most of the time. But I imagine even the bravest of us cannot contemplate our own death without just a little fear.

I felt it as the nurse ushered me into the room without returning my gaze.

“I am so dead,” I thought.

The consultant looked very dour, which confirmed my worst suspicions.

That day it was a Spanish woman, in her late twenties I guessed.

She opened an enormous file and leafed through its pages until she got to the latest CT scan results.

Unexpectedly, a broad smile spread over her face.

“Excuse me a moment.”

She left the office for a minute.

Then she returned, still smiling broadly.

“This is very good news. You have responded extremely well.  It looks like it’s operable.”

So the nurse not meeting my eye had been utterly meaningless. A tiny, subjective human detail. She hadn’t known anything. The doctor hadn’t even read my file before I came in.

In the objective – the real – world the growth in my body had shrunk to an operable size – thanks to science, research money, and good doctoring.

The nurse looked over at me and  met my gaze. She was smiling too.


An audio version of this blog is available here:

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