The Patient’s Tale

The Power of Hope

Hello Friend,

Without trying to, Emma Bern (not her real name) taught me a lesson that has stayed with me for nearly forty years. It is one that I draw upon when I find myself on the verge of giving up hope.

At that time, in 1983, I was a newly minted medical technologist in a New York City hospital. Part of our duties was to go up to the floors each morning and draw the patients’ blood. As expected, we were subject to good natured ribbing where the patients called us vampires or blood suckers. Some who had grown tired of the procedure told us to get lost in no uncertain terms. These did not worry us for we knew that a no-nonsense nurse would soon visit them when she learned of their refusal.

Some patients stood out. The one who sounded exactly like Katharine Hepburn was one. She even looked somewhat like her, tall and lean with her hair up in a bun. She was a chatterbox and carried on a cheerful one-sided conversation as we withdrew vials of her blood. Then there was the most attractive, Hollywood good-looking young man who made us so nervous that we kept missing his bulging veins. And who could forget the addict who, when I could not find a good vein on her, snatched the needle from my hand, stuck herself in the thigh, and drew her blood. Her reaction was understandable for I’m sure I was hurting her and she must have gone through tedious ER procedures before coming to the floor.

The most memorable patient, however, was Emma Bern. Emma was in her late fifties. She had come in for surgery. The procedure was a success and Emma was recovering nicely. Her bright eyes and arresting smile welcomed me as I approached her bed. She knew why I was there, my basket of Vacutainer tubes and tourniquets, and gauze and Band Aids was a dead give-away, but Emma still smiled as I took her arm.

“My son’s coming today”, she beamed.

I asked where he lived and she said in Pennsylvania, just past Jersey. She chatted on and I learned that he was her only child. She did not mention a husband or other relatives.

Her smile and good spirits were contagious, and I left her bedside smiling.

“Good morning, Ms. Bern”, I called the next day. I tried to make sure that I got to be her phlebotomist that day also.

She beamed a reply, and when I asked about her son, she said that he would be there today. Something unexpected came up yesterday and he could not make it.

The next day her reply was the same, but a bit of spark had left her. And the day after that it was even less, until Emma smiled and spoke no more. Her sparkling eyes were now dull orbs with a far-away look. This was a time before HIPPA rules existed and I was tempted to ask for her son’s number and beg him to come, but then I knew that one, or several, of the nurses on the floor had already made that call.

One morning Emma’s bed was empty. It was not because she was discharged.

I know the sparsest details of Emma’s life, or of who she was as a person. I just know that the hope of seeing her son kept her happy and gave her a reason to live. When she realized that that was not going to happen, she gave up hope, little by little, and sunk into an abyss of hopelessness from which she, I suspect, did not care to be delivered.

It was through Emma that I learned first-hand of the power of hope to sustain us, and the power of hopelessness to destroy us. She may have given up hope, but I focus on the person she was when she was filled with anticipation of things to come. That memory has steered me towards hope many a time.