It was the week of Christmas a year ago. As I was coming out of an examination room, Joann, my office manager of 28 years, passed me in the hallway, carrying a beautifully wrapped small gift package.
After so many years, she can read my mind and I can read her face. I clearly sensed her uneasiness. I attributed it to her knowledge that I am not fond of receiving gifts, mainly because of my difficulty in finding time to satisfy my compulsive urge to immediately acknowledge the gesture.
I am also obsessive about seeing all my patients on time. I did not have a chance to pay attention to the gift, until the end of that busy day. When I finally did, I realized the reason for Joann's uneasiness. From the handwriting on the gift, I knew right away, that the gift came from Mrs. F.M.
The wrapping was so perfect and pretty, I did not have the heart to open it. I let it rest on the top of the guest chair against the wall facing me. That is where it stayed unopened. Until Thanksgiving week of 2010.
We all have daily routines. Mine is intermittently interrupted with the occasional heart that suddenly attacks or fails its owner, mostly as retaliation for its mistreatment.
I always come to the hospital early, while it is still dark. I sip a cup of hot chocolate while reading the newspaper in the doctor's lounge. I pass by the emergency room to my office next door. I sit quietly and alone for a few minutes and I reflect on the past before the present day officially starts. For the past year, staring at the beautiful gift across my desk became part of my contemplation every morning.
This particular gift came from a person very special. I cared for Mrs. F.M. medically for 26 years. She had multiple medical problems, in addition to her heart condition, needing several hospitalizations over the years. Her loving son quit his job many years ago and cared for her as his full-time job. She never came for an office visit without her son and without a small appropriate gift. She never failed to ask about my son's new scientific accomplishments in medicine. She sent a card for every single holiday, at least six times a year.
She wrote her 160-page autobiography on her old typewriter. She gave me the only carbon copy. Every wrinkle on her unassuming face reflected a different chapter in her book. Her ever-smiling face managed to hide all her problems. She was in the newspaper when she stood up to the condo association to fight for her right to feed the squirrels. Her strong will used to give me strength and her poor health used to remind me of my own fragility.
I finally opened the gift. It is a blank diary with "Best wishes and Merry Christmas" scripted in ink on the first page. I love it with all my heart. What a perfect gift!
Back to Joann's puzzled face the week of Christmas 2009. She knew that Mrs. F.M. had passed away in the hospital around Thanksgiving 2009. I gathered from her son that she somehow knew in her heart that it would be her last hospital trip. She wrapped the gift, while gasping for breath just before she called the ambulance. She instructed her son to deliver it to me for Christmas in case she couldn't do it herself.
I am thinking of you too, Mrs. F.M. You are very much alive in my thoughts.
This is my first entry in your diary. I hope you don't mind me sharing it with others. Also, forgive me for my late acknowledgement.
Merry Christmas to you, too!
Dr. Rao Musunuru, a practicing cardiologist, is the recipient of the 2010 Outstanding Physician Award from Florida Medical Association.