I was securing the arterial line I had just placed in her left radial artery when I heard her singing quietly under her breathe. It piqued my interest, so I listened closer. She was singing along with the song playing on the station we had playing in the operating room.
I looked at her emaciated face half-covered by a mask and stated,
“You must love that song.”
“I love those old songs. They remind me of growing up”, she replied.
The answer made me conscious of my age. I was in medical school when the song was released. She was six.
“What kind of music do you like?” I asked her.“
Country, classic rock, rap, and old gospel… all good music really”, she replied.
I watched as she answered. Her eyes were suddenly dancing. That hungry look was gone.
She went on, “Music speaks to everyone. It is a language everyone understands.”
I could swear I saw her smile under that mask. I decided to explore further. I asked her whether she had kids. She had three and a grandchild with another on the way. The joy in her voice was unmistakable.
“What did you want to be once upon a time?” I asked.
“I wanted to help people who were on drugs,” she said.
That surprised me. You see, the patient I was having a conversation with was a drug addict. She had a history of abusing several drugs – intravenous, intranasal, orally. The drugs had marked her being and left all the signs drugs tend to leave behind in their utter devastation of addicts – the needle tracks, bad teeth, sores, horrible hair, infections, and that cold, hungry look. And yet, once upon a time, she wanted to become a social worker who worked with addicts.
On further questioning, I found out she had dropped out of high school, never getting her GED. There was hardly any family support. The slide into addiction killed that dream she had to help addicts. As we conversed, I caught a glimpse of her dreams and aspirations. I sensed what may have been in those minutes, and I bet she did too. I bet in periods of clarity when an old song plays, she is taken back to those days when everything was possible – long before the drugs took over her life and instilled a hard, hungry look in her cold eyes. With all the monitors in place and the surgeon ready, I took the surgical mask off her face, the nasal cannula out of her nose, placed an oxygen mask over her thin face, and told her I would take good care of her. She whispered a thank you, and the tears that glistened in her eyes were difficult to miss.
I knew in a few hours, her procedure would be over, and she would emerge from anesthesia craving pain medicine with the furor of a lion hunting down a gazelle. I knew in a few hours, she would be unbearable, her hunger for opioids insatiable, and that cold look would return into her eyes. However, in those minutes, as I got her ready, I saw the human held captive by drugs.
Addiction is a terrible disease. Its unrelenting hold on its victims destroys lives, dreams, families, and livelihoods. Addicts are unbearable, insufferable, manipulative, and mean. They are beings with not only sick bodies but spirits that are broken. And yet, deep in there is a soul that aches to be saved. A soul that hears a song and is taken back to a time when all was possible. However, it is not only addicts who think of what might have been.
It is a human condition that we cannot always achieve our dreams, or we lose track of the way, or even life rears its ugly head, and one day, we find ourselves on a road we never thought we would be on. It is a human condition that sometimes, the human spirit is a broken entity. When that happens, may that song that takes you back not only remind you of what may have been but also what is still possible. When you hear that song, send good wishes and strength out to that broken addict fighting to kick an ugly habit and make something of this life. Then even as music is a language we all understand, being broken is a condition we should all relate to.
By Nana Dadzie Ghansah an anesthesiologist who practices in Lexington, Kentucky