I heard the same comment from most of my colleagues all week. "I did not see your car. I am glad you finally took a few days vacation."
I do not have a fancy car, but it is difficult not to recognize its absence. I parked my car in the physician's parking lot in the same spot for decades. The license plate proudly proclaimed "Stop Heart Disease."
I told everybody that I did not go anywhere and I was driving my son's car as he did not need it anymore. That was true but only half the truth. I was hurting too much to talk to them about my old car.
Old car? Yes, it is! More than 25 years old, but who is counting? Looked good. Drove well, very well, indeed, without any problems. I do not know how many miles. The odometer stopped years ago, after a quarter million miles and I never bothered replacing it.
In my youthful days, I was tempted to treat myself with a fancy new car each Christmas season, which always coincided with compelling requests for charitable giving. As I did not see the real need for a new car, I ended up donating that money every year to a different charity. I acquired a new helpful habit and I kept an old faithful car.
Suddenly one morning, my old reliable car did not start. I was shocked. It was perfectly fine the night before when I drove home from work. The mechanic said, some chain in the engine broke. It would cost several thousands of dollars. He did not recommend repairing it, considering the age of the car.
I am very familiar with mortality. Over the years, I have seen many lives end suddenly. I was able to resuscitate many. Some, I could not and God knows, I felt very bad every single time. The longer I knew the patient, the more it hurt.
It is different this time. This is a machine, not a person. But I was experiencing all the feelings of an immediate family member — the loss, the frustration, the anger and the misery. First, I was mad at the mechanic. Then, I was mad at the car. And then, I was mad at myself, for reasons not clearly comprehensible.
I was not prepared for this ending, as inevitable as it might be. This is the same sturdy car that protected me all these years during my hospital trips after midnight, half-asleep. We grew old together. A couple of scratches here and there over the years added to its beauty.
Well, I did not get rid of my old car as the mechanic suggested. I just could not. I had it towed back to my home and parked it on the side of the driveway. I am going to keep it for now, even though it is not functional. I am fully aware that I have to part with it soon, accepting the fact that my natural attachment can not stop its normal aging. Maybe its useful parts can be recycled to help somebody.
Time is an invaluable asset. The bonds get stronger with each passing year. Ironically, time also takes its toll in different ways. And then, fortunately, it is the same time that heals and helps.
My wife of 36 years is not too happy about my old car sitting in the driveway, but she accepted the idea. She is going to need a lot more patience with me when my 1975 wristwatch stops displaying the correct time.
For now, it is time to get back to work. My 101-year-old patient just arrived, on time, with her 74-year-old daughter for a routine visit.
Dr. Rao Musunuru is a practicing cardiologist, serving residents of Pasco and Hernando counties since 1981. He is the recipient of the American Heart Association's 2005 National Physician of the Year Award.