“When I came to (from a coma) that late-January morning, the hospital ophthalmologist was leaning over me and sewing my right eyelid shut with a needle and thread, just as if he were darning a sock.”
These are the words of Jean-Dominique Bauby, painstakingly dictated letter by letter through the blinking of an eye from his hospital bed.
The horror of this scene is masterfully depicted from the perspective of the patient in the 2007 film “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon,” (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), an adaptation of Bauby’s book.
At 43 years of age, Bauby suffered a massive stroke, which knocked out his brainstem, leaving him paralyzed from the mouth down, with his cerebral faculties intact. For the rest of his life he would remain a prisoner trapped within his own body—his scaphandre, a deep-sea diving suit.
Although many caretakers treat him with loving respect, the hospital ophthalmologist is not one of them. “This man—who spent his days peering into people’s pupils—was apparently unable to interpret a single look.…he was the very model of the couldn’t-care-less doctor: arrogant, brusque, sarcastic—the kind who summons his patients for 8:00 a.m., arrives at 9:00, and departs at 9:05, after giving each of them forty-five seconds of his precious time.”
It is only later that Bauby learns—from another source—that his right eye was sewn shut to preserve the integrity of the cornea. The lid was not working and needed to be sealed as a protective cover for six months—a proper medical procedure performed with no explanation given to the patient at the time.
How many of us in medical practice fail to take the time to offer our patients simple explanations for our treatments to allay their fears? The procedures we perform may well be appropriate for the patient; yet I would argue that such procedures offered without explanation do not comprise good medical care.
“To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always” needs to be our guide for compassionate care.
And what of Bauby’s ophthalmologist? “If he leaves Berck, which seems likely, who will be left for me to sneer at? I shall no longer have the solitary innocent pleasure of hearing his eternal question: ‘Do you see double?’ and replying—deep inside—‘Yes, I see two assholes, not one.’”