Disfigured, 1995

He sits stooped in bed, scowling. “I look like a corpse.”

Robert’s face and neck are disfigured from surgery and radiation. His body is bruised and bone skinny. A tracheostomy tube juts from his neck, a feeding tube from his belly. It is cancer; too many cigarettes for too many years.

“And I smell like shit; I’m rotting from the inside out. I bet you couldn’t eat lunch in my room.” His head pivots to the side; he glares. “Well?”

“Yes I could,” I blurt. My words are duplicitous and inappropriate. My face reddens in embarrassment.  

He coughs. A stringy glob of bloody mucous heaves from his tracheostomy and lands on the bed sheet. I stare, uncomfortably. I glance upward; our eyes meet. “See, you can’t, you can’t eat lunch in my room.”

My shoulders slump. “It’s just not appropriate.”

“It’s okay, no need for excuses. But you’d feel the same if you were in my shoes.” I am ashamed; I would feel the same, likely.

He fidgets with his hospital gown. “I want to die now. I’m stopping the tube feedings, but I don’t want to linger.” His eyes roam the room. “Send me home on hospice, then help me die, now. No one would know.” He has no spouse. He has no children. He has no siblings. He is right, no one would know, except the pharmacist.

I advise him physician-assisted death is illegal in this state. His eyes flare feral. He clenches his hands and pounds his thighs. “No! That’s not acceptable.” His shakes the bedrails. “I’m suffering. I’m dying. You could do it if you wanted to.”

I try to reason with him; my words are lip service. “I have a gun,” he says. He is manipulative, but is he suicidal? Psychiatry has asserted he is not; however, I am uncertain. He appears desperate.

I tell him I can keep him comfortable after he stops the tube feedings, sedate him so he sleeps. It may be days before he dies, but he will be comfortable and unaware. He flicks his hand in dismissal, then curls into a fetal position. I attempt to visit for three days; he refuses to see me.

He dies ten days later, thirteen days after discontinuing tube feedings. He lingered as he feared. He suffered physically and existentially. My guilt is insufferable.


Source: “Guilt” by h.koppdelaney is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Paul Rousseau
Paul Rousseau is a semi-retired physician and writer, published or forthcoming in The Healing Muse, Blood and Thunder, Intima. A Journal of Narrative Medicine, The Human Touch, Please See Me, Months To Years, The Examined Life, Burningword Literary Journal, Cleaning up Glitter, The Centifictionist, Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Tendon, and others. Lover of dogs.