Monday, September 04, 2006

Dining companions

This past weekend I stooped to a new low while on call. It had been a relatively slow Saturday, but I’d had three admissions interspersed over the afternoon and evening, and by the time I finished admitting the last patient, a high school-aged boy named Tim, an empty gnawing sensation had somehow crept its way into my stomach. When I went back into Tim’s room to follow up on a question I had forgotten to ask him earlier, I was surprised and jealous to see and smell that he had ordered Chinese food from a neighborhood restaurant. Now in my defense, the cafeteria was closed by then, and the only food available was the snacks in the vending machines. As I went over the details that I had returned for, I couldn’t help but take a few looks at the impressive amount of food that was sitting around his room, much of what appeared to be leftovers. “How was the food?” I asked him, “That looks really good.” We chatted a bit more, and I snuck a few more looks at the apparently left over chunks of deep-fried sweet and sour chicken. Finally the offer came, “I’m not going to eat all this food, would you like some? I promise I didn’t spit in it or do anything weird.”
“Well, it does look pretty good,” I said, offering no protest. “Sure, I’ll have some!”
I sampled one of the chicken pieces. “Not bad.”
“Take the whole carton,” he said.
“You’re sure you aren’t going to eat any more of it?”

I had just scored a free dinner from my teenage patient. I have to admit, I felt a little dirty about the whole thing, and to boot, I didn’t have a clue what germs might have landed on that chicken. My stomach had no qualms, though; it was feeling a whole lot better already. Somehow, I sensed that Tim felt good about the interaction too. Here was a kid who had been sick all of his life with a devastating congenital disorder predisposing him to all kinds of different infections. He had always been different, and he looked the part; his disease had stunted his growth and badly damaged his hair and skin. Yet, there I was, a young male medical resident, casually accepting his offer of food, demonstrating not only that I didn’t consider him unsanitary or covered in cooties, but that I also trusted him and thought that he was cool enough to eat with. Giving is an obvious way of demonstrating friendship, but sometimes being willing to put yourself into somebody else’s debt says just as much. In admittedly odd fashion, we reached out to each other, and in doing so we set a positive and trusting tone to the rest of our interactions for his hospital stay.