January 24, 2014

“I intend to hang around for a while longer, to love and bother you.”

Born in 1923 Arnold Relman is a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine who has written extensively on reform of the U.S. medical system.  Then, at age 90, he broke his neck.

On Breaking One's Neck

I am a senior physician with over six decades of experience who has observed his share of critical illness—but only from the doctor’s perspective. That changed suddenly and disastrously on the morning of June 27, 2013, ten days after my ninetieth birthday, when I fell down the stairs in my home, broke my neck, and very nearly died. Since then, I have made an astonishing recovery, in the course of which I learned how it feels to be a helpless patient close to death. I also learned some things about the US medical care system that I had never fully appreciated, even though this is a subject that I have studied and written about for many years.

He concludes:

Just a few months after very nearly dying, I am beginning to resume my previous activities and enjoy my life again. However, I walk slowly with a cane, and my movements are deliberate and more cautious to avoid any more falls. My astonishing recovery would never have happened without the superb emergency treatment I received at the MGH and the rehabilitative care that followed. But I am also convinced that other factors contributed to my survival: my family’s support (particularly that of my wife), a strong body, an intact brain, and very good luck all were important. I also believe my medical training helped. It made me aware of the dangers of pneumonia and other infections from contamination of catheters and tubes, so I pushed to have the latter removed as soon as possible and I took as few sedatives and painkillers as possible.

However, there was something else that helped to sustain me. I wanted to stay around as long as possible to see what was going to happen to my family, to the country, and to the health system I was studying so closely. Perhaps I was too engaged in life to allow death to intrude right then. As I wrote to my wife in one of my myriad scrawled notes the first week in the ICU, “I intend to hang around for a while longer, to love and bother you.”

Consider how his strong engagement with life is focused outside of his self.

Posted by Jill Fallon at January 24, 2014 9:41 AM | Permalink