I love old people. That's a huge reason why I'm internal medicine, but even with the exposure I've gotten so far, I am occasionally startled by the stories they tell. So I was when talking to a recent patient the infectious disease team was consulted on. He's a 90 year old guy who fought in WWII, starting in North Africa with the original American landing and going through with Patton to Italy and then landing on D Day in Normandy. The reason we were consulted was because of a positive VDRL test and concern for neurosyphilis, and while asking this guy about it, he told us "yes sah, I knows when I got the syphilis. It was in Italy. We was mostly worried about the gonorrhea, you know, 'the clap' we called it. But the syphilis...it was worth it." Straight out of Hemingway. I actually thought of Papa's story "One Reader Writes" while hearing Nick's side from that hospital bed.
It reminded me of another patient I recently saw too, a very sweet 87 year old woman, who when I saw her was having some adhesive bandages pulled off. The nurse joked to her as she winced that "it's a bit like a wax job, right ma'am?" Miss Elsie (as she insisted we call her) looked seriously at her and said "I used to wax. *pause* When the sailors came to town." She then smiled a look of mischief at all of us as she settled back on her pillow.
So yes, surprised, though I surely shouldn't be, to realize that my patients were young and foolish and wild once. It adds a depth of humanity to them, and I try to imagine what Miss Elsie looked like at the height of the Jazz age, or whether Private Stone, seeing Europe from the back of an Army truck, thought twice about the Italian girl he left behind. I wonder too, what became of her, and whether she's telling some Italian medical resident about the dashing American who contributed to her own medical history.
The stories are often sad or bittersweet, but I like hearing them, and though I'll never know the details or even the endings, it definitely brightens my day knowing there is more to my patients than penicillin. Perhaps 'brightens' isn't the right word. But humans are a tragic, noble, and foolish kind of creature, and seeing them "warts and all" does more each day to help me appreciate our little world and the kind of sense we all strive to make of it.