Friday, April 22, 2011

I think I know you .

*some details changed to protect anonymity.

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Yours was an overcomer's story.  Life had you on the ropes, pummeling you with quick jabs and followed by a firm left hook to the jaw. A near technical knock-out.  First, it was just beer. Occasionally there was alcohol, too, but mostly beer. Malt liquor, to be exact.  Then came the Mike Tyson of them all--crack cocaine.  Your defenses were weakened against this opponent.  Brought to your knees, you were down for the count.

One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Seven! Eight! Nine. . . . . 

You stood up, all woozy, doing your best to regain focus.  And then you started swinging. And swinging. And swinging.  Until the ruthless tag team of Colt 45 and tiny plastic bags of white rocks fell bloodied and surrendering.  It had been almost a year, and you were winning.  The comeback kid, now in a recovery program and taking it "one day at a time."

So this was your story, your overcomer's story, told to me by this thoughtful intern in his careful and empathic tone. He wrapped your story up with a shiny red bow for me, such that I imagined you before I even made it into the room to see you for myself. The hard times you'd fallen upon, the periods of unstable housing and high risk activities you engaged in, not because you wanted to, but because back then, you were on the ropes.

The age on your chart was not far from my own, but I expected your struggles to have aged you. Like other overcomers I'd met along the way, I knew you'd have the light of someone reborn gleaming in your eyes and more than likely a body that yes, was still ticking, but that had clearly taken a licking.  Perhaps your teeth would be riddled and decaying from those years of neglect or your belly protuberant and taut with a cirrhotic's collection of peritoneal fluid.  Maybe your ankles would be swollen from the volume overload of alcoholic cardiomyopathy or your fingers scarred with burns from tiny glass crack pipes.  Maybe.

With every word the intern spoke, your image sharpened.  You. Now in recovery. For over a year. Now winning the welter-weight division. Taking care of yourself for the first time in a long time with a little help from your friends. You. The picture of the overcomer crystallizing even more in my mind. Would you have the freshly cut hair, those clean, clean socks they always issue, or be carrying a proud collection of Narcotics Anonymous key fobs? Or just maybe might you have a prominent crucifix around your neck and answer me by saying, "blessed and highly favored" when I ask how you are today or refer to your recovery from drug and alcohol addiction as "delivery" instead? Perhaps.

See, I am a Grady doctor so I already knew you. And I had heard your story before. See, yours was an overcomer's story.  And working at this place day in and day out, I've met you and been moved by you before.  I've shaken your hand and congratulated you for beating the odds. And sometimes on my way home from work, even prayed for you by name. Yeah. I knew you.

So even though I'd only heard your story rolled out like parchment paper by the young doctor who saw you first, I knew you already.  And since the younger doctor had now been at Grady for close to a year, perhaps by now, he knew you, too.

"Shall we go and see him?" I asked after listening to the assessment and plan.

"Sure, I'm ready," the intern replied.

This visit was a straightforward one.  A minor complaint and a focused visit with something easy to remedy. The intern selected a medication that wouldn't hurt your liver or get you in trouble at your recovery program.  I'd spend most of my time congratulating you on your recovery. You deserved to be congratulated, and because I knew you already, I figured you'd appreciate it very much if I did.

We knocked on the door and entered your room.  I smiled and introduced myself, arm outstretched to shake your hand.  Yours is a firm handshake, an overcomer's handshake.  I covered it with my other hand and said, "I've heard so much about you, and it's really an honor to meet you. Congratulations on all you've done."

And I meant that, because I hadn't been through what you have been through. Or overcome what you have overcome. So yes. It was an honor to meet you.

But then I look closer at you.  Surprisingly, you are healthier-appearing than my imagery; the mutinous body I expected had withstood that terrible beat down I'd just had described to me quite well. That part caught me off guard. But. . .like I suspected, you did have that light in your eyes. . .it was almost familiar. Our eyes lock for a moment.


Your easy smile and twinkling eyes take me somewhere I've been before. No, not to a hospital bed or a clinic room, but somewhere altogether different.  Then you laugh, a slow and confident laugh. Like a southern drawl kind of laugh, decidedly unique. And undeniably familiar.

Wait. I have heard this laugh before.

My eyes dart down at your chart again. I read your name. And read it again. I look at your age. And then at your face.

Wait.  Are you . . . . ?

I cover my mouth and gasp. 

Immediately, an uncomfortable feeling washes over me as it registers. I know you-know you.  No, not in the biblical sense, but in the we-were-peers-at-some-point sense.   

What the. . .? 

Whoa! This image is the polar opposite of the one I'd had just five minutes earlier. You. Standing on our college campus with a heavy backpack full of books.  Surrounded by your fraternity brothers and always by flocks of swooning and giggly undergraduates. You. With that same molasses laugh while giving "man hugs" and secret shakes to those same fraternity brothers, a satin stole designating your summa cum laude status at our university commencement. I was younger and not necessarily in your inner circle. But our college was small. Small enough for me to know you.

"I think. . . ." I paused for a moment, deciding whether or not to acknowledge knowing you, " I think we know each other."  I know my facial expression was awkward.  And okay, I admit that part of me was intrigued. . . .but most of me was conflicted. 

You study my badge for a moment and then look at me with squinted eyes.  "This is my married name," I added, "oh, and back then my hair was a lot long--"

"Kim?" you suddenly interrupted incredulously. Then you smiled, stood up and repeated it louder, "Kim Draper?"  Without a moment's hesitation, you reached out and gave me a tight and welcoming hug. The kind of hugs people who went to our small college give each other when they run into each other in airports or shopping malls.  "Hey, Kim! Wow! It's so good to see you! What a small world!" Your face is beaming.  And genuine. And not the least bit ashamed.

I immediately relaxed, too.

"You look good!" I responded. And not "good" in that "you've been to hell and back and considering that you look good" kind of way. But good, for real, in that "you're forty-something and you don't have  a pot belly, a receding hairline, or seventy-five extra pounds" kind of way. 

"Thanks, man!" you replied still smiling as you took your seat again. "I never would have recognized you with that short hair.  Wow, man. . . . it's good to see an old friend."

I looked over at my intern who looked totally confused.  "This guy was the man when we were in college," I said to him with a chuckle. "And he was super smart.  You know I dropped Math 107 three times before finally passing it?"

"107, Kim? Damn!"  We both laughed out loud.

And so we got on to why you were there.  I reviewed your complaints. Repeated the intern's examination.  Discussed the plan, referring to you as "Mr. ___" the whole time during that part. Despite your reassuring laugh, I tried to keep the details of your time on the ropes as vanilla as possible; I wanted the mood to stay light. Like homecoming.

You referred to mutual friends of ours, and then asked about my sisters. "They're great," I told you.

"Tell them I said hello, will you?"

Your shoulders didn't coil inward once nor did your eyes become defeated a single time.  Nope, not once.  Of course, they didn't. I should have known they wouldn't. You were an overcomer.

"Hey, listen, Kim. . .it was good seeing you all in the doctor-mode and everything," you said to me as we wrapped up the visit.  You gave me this approving nod as I stood near the door in my stiff white coat. "Dang, K.D., I'm really proud of you, man."

I smiled and then said exactly what I was thinking. "Man, I'm really proud of you, too."

You get exactly what I mean by that, and so does my intern, which was really cool.

As we left your room, the intern looked over at me and said, "Wow, so you knew that guy?"

I recounted all my preconceived ideas of who I thought I would see before entering the room, took a deep breath and smiled.

"Yeah, I knew him," I replied, "but not like I thought I did."



  1. Absolutely inspired writing, Kim. I feel like I was there....

  2. Okay I'm crying AND have chills. There should be dozens of comments over here.

    Another example of "there is no THOSE PEOPLE"

  3. You know how much I love the stories about the Grady Elders, but I think that this may be my favorite post. I was so moved by your last line...
    Beautifully written!

  4. Wow! How incredibly humbling. What an image of God's grace!

  5. Humbling, evocative... I cannot help but feel that I have briefly met your old friend, and I cannot help but wish with all my might for his recovery. I hope he can see you for the beacon and inspiration that you are. I hope he can draw strength from your re-entry into his life. I hope the ground will grow firmer under his feet each day.

    And thank you for the lesson - I know I will think of it frequently once I transition from the lecture halls into the hospital soon.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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