Next Generation is a BWH Clinical & Research News (CRN) column penned by students, residents, fellows and postdocs. This month’s column is written by Ersilia M. DeFilippis, MD, a third-year resident in the Department of Medicine.
A hospital is not only a physical building. It is a community made up of those who inhabit its walls: health care professionals, administrators and most of all, patients.
John was a gem. He was the type of patient you’d want to visit during your shift just to say hello. He was a sweet Irish man, with a crooked smile that beamed. As I spent more time with John during his time at the Brigham, he inspired me to get to know all my patients a little bit better as to not miss out on their charm, wit and wonderful stories.
He was “Bostonian” in every sense of the word. During his stay as a patient at the Brigham, I learned from John that he had been born in the city more than eight decades earlier. He joined the Navy in World War II 17 years later. By that time, one of his sisters was an Army nurse and his brothers were in the service. While his father had to sign for him, given his minor status, John dedicated himself to serving our country. He remembers the day the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dropped on Japan. It was a surprise to him too, he recalled.
After his time in the service, John returned to Beantown to raise his six children, just down the street from the Brigham, before the hospital expanded. In the early 1970s, BWH was known as the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (PBBH). John told me how he worked at PBBH and was one of the workers contracted to help build our very own patient Tower at 75 Francis St., the home to many general medicine and oncology patients today. He would say that he worked on it “from the mud to the roof” or “from the cellar up.” He recalled medical wards, which were open spaces with 20-to-30 beds in one room. While he reflected on these memories, he admired the architecture and the design of the Brigham hospital room he found himself in now – this time, as a patient.
Hearing John’s story changed the way I saw the hospital too. One afternoon during my intern year, I rode up the elevator to the 14th floor in the Tower to begin my shift. This time, I noticed the tiling of the floors, the paintings on the walls and the expansive views of Mission Hill and beyond – details I had never noticed before.
John had been an inpatient at the Brigham for almost two weeks after he had been feeling short of breath and had a case of pneumonia that would not go away. Our medicine team was concerned for cancer after scans showed a mass in his lungs as well as irregular spots in his bones.
Even though his care team was concerned, John stayed positive. His room was always filled with visitors from his large, warm-hearted family. One day, John showed me a photo of his beloved dog, Sam, that he always carried with him. John told me Sam was eagerly awaiting his return home.
I walked in one evening to find John in his room watching Jeopardy. Before host Alex Trebek would finish reading the clue, John would shout out the answer.
“I wish I had this thirst for knowledge when I was younger,” John said to me.
“What did you do in school?” I asked.
“I took up space,” he joked.
I spent many evenings watching Jeopardy with John, until I received the inevitable pages about electrolyte repletion or bowel regimens. But the moments I shared with John were time well spent.
“You should write a book,” I suggested to John one day. He laughed, too modest to think that his life was anything more than ordinary.
“I have another chapter for you,” John said one night before I stepped out of his room.
Unfortunately, John passed away before I could hear about his next chapter. I think of John every day as I walk the halls of the Brigham, from the mud to the roof.
Sometimes spending just a few minutes with a patient can change not only his or her life, but also the lives of care providers. Caring for John made me rethink the way I see my job as a physician and how I see the world around me.