Al Felman

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A final breath

By Dr. A.H. Felman


While a freshman medical student in 1952, I lived with three other boarders at the home of  Minnie and Moe Marcus. During that year,  Minnie's elderly mother  developed  cancer and spent her final days in a room on the third floor..
As her disease progressed, the other more senior students in the home paid their respects  in the evenings to offer encouragement and administer morphine for her pain. I avoided these visits for reasons that I could not explain. One evening, when the others were away, Minnie asked me to give her the morphine shot.
I walked upstairs to the darkened room where the old woman lay. As I approached the bed, she squirmed away, croaking her fright at the sight of me.  I tried without success to calm her fears with words of  reason and compassion, but still she would not allow me to give her the injection.
I returned to my room, closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed in a state of  hopeless confusion and disbelief. The single question pounded in my brain crying for an answer, "How could I ever dream of  administering to sick people,   when the mere sight of me is so abhorrent. At least to this woman. An old woman on the brink of death."
Many years later, A. Ashley Weech,  the  Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, where I served my residency, came to live in Gainesville,  home of the University of Florida. As a member of the College of Medicine Faculty, I welcomed  him  to our family of physicians as an old friend. 
He took an apartment not far from where we lived and when his health began to fail, my wife and I visited him frequently. On one occasion, in a semi-delirious state, he called for a covey of quail. I drove to The Yearling restaurant in Cross Creek,  the only place where they served this dish, and brought it to him so he could take a few nibbles.
After arriving home from a visit one evening  with Dr. Weech, we received a frantic phone call from Judy, his wife.  Back at his apartment, we found him in a small upstairs bedroom, lying on the floor...unconscious. Judy was  complaining bitterly that she had called his doctors, but they had refused to come. Instead,  they  sent an ambulance with paramedics.
As Dr. Weech drew his final breaths in my arms,  I wondered why , of all the thousands and thousands of colleagues, and contemporaries and former students of this great man, fate had chosen me  to comfort him as he departed this life.
As I drove home through the blackness of a Florida night, I asked myself, "Where do people go to die? To theaters full of audiences clapping and singing? To stadiums packed with cheering throngs? Or to trivial, insignificant places. To a small cottage in Warm springs Georgia. To a frozen foxhole on the bleak tundra of Korea? Or to a small second floor room   in an obscure neighborhood of a small Florida town? 
And who is there to help them depart for their final destination. A friend? A spouse? A clergyman. Or a doctor seeking to comfort them and ease their pain   One who remembered how far he had traveled since that  terrible dark night when he first stared into the face of death. A young  tremulous medical student, with a syringe in his hand.

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