On an Indigent Cancer Patient

The doctor looked at the patient’s chart. “Sir,” he said to the weathered old man in the bed in front of him, “You’ve got lip cancer.” The old man nodded. He didn’t seem surprised or shocked. “D’you use tobacco?” the doctor asked. The old man nodded. “Smoke? Chew?” “Both,” the man answered. Now it was the doctor’s turn to nod. “And,” the doctor added, turning the pages over on the clipboard, “you seem to also be something of a drinker.” Again, the man nodded. “Can’t seem to quit that,” the old man acknowledged.

The doctor turned back to the front page of the sheath of papers. “James?” he said in the form of a question. “May I call you James?” he asked. My friends usually call me Jim,” the old man grinned. “Ok, Jim it is. We’re gonna fight this together, ok? Are you with me on this, Jim?” the doctor wanted to know. Again, Jim nodded.

“Can I ask what you did for a living, Jim?” the doctor asked.

“A little bit of everything,” Jim answered. He then ran through a litany of jobs he’d held just in the past few years—construction, bouncer at a bar, security guard, digging ditches. This list made the doctor look again at Jim over the rim of his glasses. The doctor could tell that, once upon a time, Jim had probably been a physical specimen, given the frame that now lay broken under the sheet of the hospital bed, a frame ravaged by time, hard work, drink, and now, cancer. He looked at the chart again and then smiled.

“Doc,” Jim said, looking sideways at the physician, “there’s something else you gotta know.” “Yes, Jim?” the doctor said, taking off his glasses and stashing them in his front pocket. “I…I don’t think I can pay for this, for what I gotta do to fight this thing,” Jim admitted. “You see, we’re broke, and I ain’t got nothing but my name and my memories.”

The doctor’s slight smile left him. He could sense the pride that this man had, and he didn’t want to show him any disrespect. “No, Jim, I don’t think you could. Don’t think many people could these days. It’s not cheap. But don’t worry about that now. Let’s just worry about getting you better, ok?”

Jim nodded and then sighed deeply, and, the doctor thought, sighed as if a man had a large burden taken off of him.

A young nurse came in the room, and the doctor handed the chart to her. “You rest now, Jim. We’ll talk later.” As he started to leave the room, the doctor called the young nurse over. Turning his back on the old man, the doctor said, quietly, “Take care of him, will you?”

“Of course,” the nurse said, surprised that the doctor would even say that to her. After all, she always took care of her patients. “Do you know who that is?” he asked her.

She read the name. “No?” she whispered.

“Oh, ok. Well, just make him comfortable,” the doctor said, and he left the room.

Later, at the nurses’ station, the young nurse asked an older colleague.

“What’s so special about Jim Thorpe?”