Long ago during my training years, a man in his early sixties—I’ll call him Karl—was admitted to our hospital service one day in mid-March. Karl had metastatic cancer, and he was dying. We on the in-service team liked him very much, remarking quietly to each other how it so often seemed to be the good ones that die early of such tragedies. Despite his terrible prognosis and physical discomfort he was pleasant–jovial, even–during morning rounds, putting everyone at ease with his polite disposition.
One day we walked into his hospital room, and he was having a tough morning, though not for physical reasons. He was really down, uncharacteristically so. We asked him what was troubling him. A little embarrassed at first, he shared that it was St. Patrick’s Day, and true to his Irish roots he normally celebrated that day with a glass (or two) of green beer. Doing so was a custom of his and his family’s for decades. He told us how unfortunate it was that he wouldn’t be able to celebrate this way this time ‘round.
Upon examining him and talking with him further, we took our leave and somberly continued morning rounds. Afterwards I stood at the nurses’ counter with my chief resident. I was post-call and yearning for sleep, so I wasn’t paying much attention to what he was doing; I was hanging around until his exit off the floor, which was tacit permission for me to go home and go to bed. He made a couple brief phone calls and wrote something in a patient chart. He slammed the chart shut, startling me, and grinning widely he proclaimed, “That oughta do it!” And he walked off, swinging his stethoscope in his hand as he disappeared down the hall.
I looked down: it was Karl’s chart. I couldn’t help it, of course. I opened it, flipped to the “orders” section, and read the following in my chief resident’s barely legible scribble:
“Administer 1 glass beer p.o. x 1. Apply green food color prior to ingestion.”
I smiled as I left the hospital that morning.
After awakening from my post-call nap I called the floor and spoke with Karl’s nurse. He had enjoyed his green ale. Several days later he went to hospice a happier man.
That was a couple decades ago. I hear that beer is still available in some hospitals. But I wonder how difficult it would be for a dying person to get it these days. The process of health care is so burdened now with endless complexities—regulations, statutes, administrations, commissions, regulations, third party payers, boards, committees, and did I mention regulations?—it seems hard to believe that underneath all of that still exists the original idea that I went into medicine for in the first place: to actually care for people, to make what is miserable less miserable, to heal, to help make life a little better, maybe lengthen it too. All this sounds so quaint and clichéic now, things one might say in a medical school interview. But isn’t it still true, what we’re all still supposed to be doing in health care? If so, does the administration of health care now really have to be such a struggle, such a fight all the damn time?
To some of those non-clinicians who have their hands in the business of health care, I would ask what they would do if charged directly with the task of making a person’s life better. What rules that they themselves created would they try to bend to grant a dying man a green beer? Or would they? A green beer would be difficult to pre-authorize.
As my life continues on, I am increasingly grateful for what I have, who I have it with, and what I am allowed to do every day for work. I think of Karl every St. Patrick’s Day. To my readers, if you choose to celebrate a little tonight, I’d appreciate your lifting one up to Karl and cheering the greatness of life. We’re lucky to have each day we have.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, and Happy Selection Sunday! Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh!