Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The little girl who didn't cry wolf.

Your chest was hurting. This was your chief complaint. "Like pressure," you'd said. Then you shook your head and closed your eyes. Your hand pushed into the center of your chest for emphasis.

I asked what you were doing when it came on. You shrugged and insisted that it was nothing out of the usual. Then you scratched your shoulder vigorously. The suddenness of the gesture startled me.

"You okay?" I asked.
"Yeah," you said. "I just be itching sometimes."

I nodded. And then went back to the discussion.

Pressure like chest pain at rest that made you miserable enough to come to the emergency department. A little bit of shortness of breath. But not much. No numbness or tingling in your arms. You weren't exerting yourself in any way.


And yeah. You USED to use crack. But not any more. You were adamant.

"I fell to my knees," you said. "I was so tired, Miss Manning. I fell to my needs and asked God please. Please take this stronghold away from me."

I kept listening. Almost feeling like I didn't deserve to be on the other end of this testimony given my mood. My team was surrounding me during this conversation. They followed my lead, saying nothing.

You went on: "Then? Just like that. He took it away from me. I swear. It's been three whole months. THREE WHOLE MONTHS." You repeated that last part.

"Wow," I said. My 'wow' didn't sound wow-ish. It sounded mechanical and fake. My hand was rubbing the side of my neck. I was listening to you and watching you. Your eyes were dancing and your hands were animated. The laxity of your jaw as you spoke reminded me of the many heavy crack users I'd seen over the years and the patient years ago who pointed to Bobby Brown on the television and said, "That way he move his jaw like that? That's when you use a whole, whole bunch of crack." So yeah. This was what I was thinking about. The whole time that you were talking about what God had taken away from you.


I didn't fully believe you. Not that I didn't think you believed what you were saying. But I was tired. Very tired this day. And I just needed something to just bark exactly like a dog and say, "Hello. My name is Fido."


The third year medical student, however, was new to this. He'd heard your story and presented you to me as the last patient at the end of a busy day. And every drop of your kool aid, he'd lapped it all up, gleefully reporting your newfound abstinence. "I believe her," he said about you. His young face was emphatic and his greenish eyes glistening with advocacy and defiance. He repeated himself. "I believe her."

I wanted to. But my bias against you was so strong. And I was tired. Like so, so tired. Not take-a-nap tired. But emotionally tired of watching how this sickening crack epidemic decimated my people and how it was all beginning to feel like a hopeless version of that movie Groundhog Day.


I remembered what I'd learned about ways to fight bias. Being aware of triggers like exhaustion and such. And so I held your hand and did the things we do for chest pain. I nodded my head and mumbled words of affirmation about God's intervention like "Won't He do it."

Then I said sorry in my head right after that. To God for fronting and using his name in vain.

"We didn't check a urine drug screen," the student said outside of your room. "I mean, we can. But I will be so disappointed if it's positive."

I was tired. So I just dragged a breath of air and said, "Me, too. But still. Check it." Which he did.


Today when I came to see you, you looked so happy to see me. Your face was still full of light. The gladness in your eyes to see this black woman doctor was palpable. I could see it before I even turned the light on. "My doctor! Heeeeey Miss Manning!"

You reached for my hand. I grabbed it. "Hey sis," I said softly. Then I sat down. My face was serious. And my eyes almost immediately welled up with tears.

"What?" you queried. Your eyes looked worried. About ME. "What?"

I swallowed and gained my composure. "I owe you an apology." Your eyes widened. "I. . .I just got back your urine drug screen. The student didn't want to get it. But I insisted." You kept listening. "It was negative."

The expression on your face was inexplicable. Then what you did next surprised me. You held open your arms and asked for a hug. I obliged you.

"You be wanting to believe, don't you? But you can't always believe."

I nodded and sighed. "I do want to believe. I do."

"It's okay. That's the thing about a stronghold. It make reality and fantasy look like one and the same. Bet you heard a whole bunch of folks cry wolf before."

I tapped my foot and bit my lip so I wouldn't cry. "I am very proud of you. And so happy for you."

"And I believe you," you said. Then you squeezed my hand.

When I left your room, I went to a stairwell to cry. Mad with myself because every day I am preaching to my teams to believe that today could be the day. Here "today" was staring me in the face and my bias and exhaustion wouldn't let me believe it. Or at least try to believe it.


No. I don't have all this shit figured out. No, I do not. But you were right. I be wanting to believe. Damn, I do.


P.S. I told my medical student I was sorry, too.

Happy Wednesday.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Sister and the Warrior.

*as always, details changed to protect anonymity.

Afternoon rounds last week

Her: "Did you feel nervous when got that?"
Me: "When I got what?"
Her: *points at my wrist* "That."
Me: "Oh this? First yes. Then no."


Her: "Wow. I never saw a doctor with a tattoo on her wrist."
Me: "No?"
Her: "Nope."
Me: "So. . .I'm curious. How does that make you feel?"
Her: "I'm young. So it mostly make it seem like you cool."


Her: "Nawww, but real talk? I think it just make me know you a person."
Me: *listening*
Her: "Like, to me, a tatt supposed to tell a story. Like, it should mean something."
Me: "I like that."
Her: *pulls gown off of shoulder* "See this one? It say 'WARRIOR.' Because I been through so much with my health but I come through stronger every time. I'm always gon' fight back!" *kicks foot out of sheet to show her foot* "This one on my foot say 'Follow my footsteps.' That one remind me that even though some people let me down when I was little, I ain't no victim. I can create my own path, follow God's path and be somebody other people want to follow, you know what I'm sayin'?"
Me: "I do. That's dope."


Her: "I mean, you gotta be careful about where you get ink. And what it say. But you also got to do you." *covers feet back up with covers* "And you can't be drunk or nothing."
Me: *nodding* "I know that's right."

*fist bump*

Her: *points at my wrist again* "Okay. So what's the story behind that?"
Me: *turning my wrist to look at it* "Well. . . I lost a sister."
Her: "Oh man. Sorry."
Me: "Yeah. But she was awesome so I like remembering her this way. I also have another sister living. And I'm forever a sister to her, my sister who passed and to my brother. I believe in women having tight bonds so I'm a sister to my women friends. And then there's my sorority. . .that's another sisterhood I'm in."
Her: *smiling* "That's what's up."
Me: *still looking at my wrist* "Yeah. I was gonna put it somewhere else at first. But then I realized that I wanted to see it every day. So I put it here on my right wrist."


Her: "See? I told you a tattoo make people know you a person."
Me: *laughing* "I'm not so sure everyone would agree."
Her: "I think sick people don't care about that. They just want to know you a person who care and not a robot."


Her: "I saw that and you know what I thought?"
Me: "What's that?"
Her: "That sister gon' take care of me. 'Cause she got love in her heart for somebody."


Me: *wanting to cry so bad*
Her: *just staring at me smiling*

She seemed like she knew I wanted to cry.


Her: "I love your tattoo, Dr. Manning."
Me: *staring at my wrist again and smiling* "You know what, little sister? I love it, too."


Damn, I love this job.

Happy Monday.

I love you x 3.

There was this older gentleman who'd been admitted to my team and his admission was soft. We call admissions "soft" when someone was on the fence about whether or not to keep the patient hospitalized or send them home. But anyways, he got admitted and his issue was quickly sorted out and the very next morning he was ready for discharge. Nothing about his problems were exotic or earth-shattering.


We actually didn't see him as a team on rounds that day. His issues were so straightforward that I'd agreed to see him on my own. He was nice enough and didn't have many questions when I got to the end of the encounter. And so. I reached for his hand and wished him well.

And that was that.

Well. Not really. I always like to find some way to connect with my patients or to show them I have an interest in them as a person. This patient was pretty quiet so it wasn't exactly the easiest thing in the world. I tried anyway.

"Is someone in your family coming to pick you up?" I asked. "If not, we can arrange a ride for you."
"My sister will be coming to get me. I'm okay with the ride part."
"Okay," I responded. I smiled and prepared to stand up from the bedside chair. "Do you have children, sir?" 

At Grady that question feels rhetorical--especially when talking to the elders. Of course this man had children. He probably even had grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"No, ma'am. We never had children."
He said 'we' not 'I.' Hmmm. So I bit. 
"Were you. . . previously married?" I kind of wanted to smack my forehead after saying that. I was relieved when he didn’t seem to take offense to that question. 
"If I could have been, I would have been." 
He stared out of the window and his eyes began to glisten with tears. I wasn't fully sure how to proceed but I hungered to know from where the emotion was coming.
"Tell me more." That's all I said, sitting myself back down in preparation for his response. Vanilla enough. Forward enough. Maybe even too forward, but I didn't want it to be mistaken as anything other than the question it was.


He turned his head and gazed at me. This soft-spoken man who'd uttered very few words since his hospitalization touched his fingers to his lips and then pressed them together to hold in the first thing even close to a smile that I'd seen since walking in. "My love. That is a good word for him."

Yes. Him. Aaaah.

"Do you mind telling me more?" 
He smiled and shook his head. Then he began to speak.
"His name was Morris. He was funny and loud and a really, really good dancer. He wasn't afraid of anybody, either. We met when I was still a teenager but we were inseparable. He didn't care what people thought about him loving me, either. Nobody."
"Wow. How long were you together?"
"More than 20 years off and on. He went to the military for a little while and I lived out west for a couple of years. Then we came back together."
"Morris sounds amazing."
"He was. I took care of him until he took his last breath. I held his hand and stroked his cheeks and just kept on saying 'I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you' until his last moment." He started blinking fast to remove the tears that were quickly forming. Then he sighed deep and hard. "He was so, so brave. He was the love of my whole life."
I was already crying. I patted my own cheeks and smiled. "I love that you just kept saying 'I love you' until the moment he died. That's probably one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard."
"It was so hard being gay back then. There weren't people clapping at parades for us, either. Especially in Atlanta. But Morris always said that life was short and that we needed to live. He said we deserved love and I believe he was right. One funny thing he always said was, 'You don't want to hear about, talk about or imagine your mama and her sex life. Why the hell you got your drawers all in a bundle about mine?'" He let out a moist chuckle and then quickly looked wistful. "He made me brave, too."
"Wow. What happened to Morris?"
"He died of AIDS. Back before they had all the stuff they have now. I got lucky somehow and didn't get it. But his family was scared of him and they weren't nice. That's why I wanted the last words he heard to be 'I love you.' I must have chanted those three words for more than six hours straight. I'm not kidding you. He was in and out of consciousness but I just kept on. Sip some water and then say it again. And again and again and again."
"I love you, I love you, I love you. I can think of no more beautiful way to make a transition."
"I pictured him hearing my voice and then God taking over with the same words." He looked over at me and smiled. I could tell that he was serious.
"Me, too." And with that my voice cracked and I started full on crying. I sure did. And he handed me his tissue box off of the tray table and I took three pieces. And then we just sat there imagining Morris escaping the pain of horrible stigma and ignorance and not being accepted and advanced AIDS and just feeling free and loved. Following the sound of those three soul-fulfilling words.

I love you, I love you, I love you.

It was perfect, that moment. Perfect in how unexpectedly beautiful and pivotal it was. Every time I imagine him standing vigil over his brave Morris saying, I love you, I love you, I love you, I cry. And it feels good, too, because I know I'm honoring their love and that moment that I had the chance to be introduced to it.

I love you, I love you, I love you.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

A cup of joe.

Today was my day to drive carpool. That makes my morning crazier than usual and the struggle even real-er than it is at baseline.


I was hustling out the door so fast that I spilled half of my coffee in the driveway. Which, if you know how much I love a good cup of joe in the morning, is a really big deal.


I got stuck behind a train. Right by the kid's house that I was already running late to get. And fortunately, his mama is cool and so is he. But still. That mixed with no coffee wasn't my favorite.


I forgot my gloves. And I have those hands that turn fifty shades of ghastly grey when cold. They hurt, too. So after dropping kids off, I kept doing this thing where I'd stick one hand under my thigh while driving with hopes of the car seat warmer toasting it up. Let me tell you something: That doesn't work so well.


The Grady garage was already filling up. Which was annoying considering it wasn't even 9am. I circled up and up and up until I reached the roof. That is, the 10th floor. Which adds like 7 minutes to your commute home. And that's a lot when you are almost always on two wheels trying to get to a kid during hospital service time. Did I mention that I spilled almost all of my coffee?


Like always, I felt a little better when I got to work. But that was short lived because my office door was locked when I got to it. Which, for most people, is no big deal. But for me it is since I don't like my office locked nor do I carry around the key.


Bump it. I decided to just grab my white coat and roll out across the street to the hospital. Fortunately, Linda, this super nice woman on our admin team had just made a fresh pot of coffee. She waved her hand from her cubicle and told me she could feel that I'd want some. She was right.


I pour a piping hot cup to go. Carefully, I place a top on it to be certain, certain, certain that I wouldn't spill it. My colleague friend waited for me beside the elevator because he was going to round, too. And we chatted about our teams and my icicles (both figurative and literal) started to melt.


So we strut out of the office building and the cold hits us in the face like a mad ass pimp. (Yeah, I said it. Because that's what I was thinking.) But even that was fine because I had this really, really hot and really, really fresh cup of coffee that Linda had put love into. She even told me that I could have some of her fancy creamer if I wanted. I added a tiny splash. Which gave me something to look forward to.


So we were just walking and talking. Really fast, too because it was, to quote my dad, cold as adunnawhat. So we are hustling quickly with our white coats pulled super tight. Making our way into Grady before freezing in place.

That's when I heard it.

"'Scuse me! Miss Doctor? 'Scuse me!"

I stopped and turned around to face him. It was the voice of what appeared to be a man at least 20 years my senior. This elder appeared to be living out in those elements. Shit. I braced myself for him to ask for cash. And immediately wished I'd placed a granola bar in my pocket.


"Um, could you tell me where I can get coffee?" he said.

He had his hand wrapped around himself, rubbing his bony shoulders. His coat was not warm enough. Not at all.

"Um. Let me think,"I replied. "We have a coffee shop inside."

"Oh. Okay, thank you, hear?" He didn't walk toward the entrance, though. Instead, he turned the other direction. Maybe it was because he didn't have cash. I'm not sure.

I thought about just walking him into the coffee shop to get him a coffee. But I knew that, one, my team was waiting. Two, the line was going to be long at this time of day. And three, I never give cash money outside of the hospital. Plus I didn't have any money on me anyway.

Sorry, sir. That's what I said in my head before continuing on my way. We resumed talking and walking. I looked back over my shoulder as my brisk footsteps took me further away from him.

Then, I felt something. It was like God Himself grabbed my shoulder and said, "What about your coffee?"

"This one? With the special splash of creamer? Dude. Seriously?"

I stopped in my tracks. Spun on my heel and called out. "Sir!" He turned around. "You want my coffee? It's hot. I just got it."

His eyes widened. That's when it occurred to me that he never intended for me to do THAT. He just hoped I knew of some magic place to hook a brother hard on his luck up with a cup of coffee. Turns out I did.

"Oh yes. I would really, really like that," he said. And I knew when I put it in his hand that I would be going to round and into my day without that yummy special creamer and minus that perfect backup cup of joe.

Did birds start chirping and heavens open up? Nah. But that was okay. Because maybe, just maybe, God showed HImself to me today. And you know what? I saw Him.


Happy Wednesday.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019


"Baby, you will rise. Limit is the skies. 
Don't you let nobody fill your head up with their lies."  

- Amel Larrieux

I was once sitting at a table after giving a lecture as a visiting professor at a medical institution. I'd mentioned in my talk about how I'd applied to Emory for both medical school and residency but how I wasn't granted an interview either time. How my grades were good but my standardized test scores weren't at a high enough percentile to make the cut. Then I went on to share how later I would join the Emory faculty and build a successful career there--in spite of all of that. The message, geared toward medical students primarily, was about grit and resilience--both of which are critical to the success of any physician. They seemed to receive it well.

Over coffee and dessert after the lecture, I made small talk with the nearly fifteen senior faculty members, medical students and esteemed guests sitting at my table. Of all the people there, not a single one looked like me. Or even close to like me. But still. They spoke kind words of affirmation and asked polite questions. And I answered them all and it was fine.

But then, this happened. A subtle microaggression straight from the mouth of a grey-haired full professor who, I guess, meant well.

Him: "Your talk was so inspirational. Thank you for that."
Me: "Thanks. I appreciate your kind words, sir."
Him: "It looks like things really worked out for you. I guess I'm just wondering how we zero in on the ones like you and not overlook them. When they don't quite meet the standard, how do you reconcile that?"


Me: "Well. I guess the first thing I will say is who defined the standard? Perhaps that standard isn't the best measure for everyone. You know?"
Him: "I'm not sure I understand."
Me: "People like me weren't there when those standards were being created."
Him: *still not getting it* "I hear you. But I guess what I am wondering is how do you know that, if you DO take a chance, someone will be scrappy like you were? How do we not pass on the ones like you? The diamonds in the rough?"

He smiled showing all of his big, yellow teeth. I did not smile back.


Me: *in my head* "Did this dude just call a visiting professor 'scrappy' and 'a diamond in the rough?'"
Me: *out loud* "Sir, where I came from? I was able to shine from the very start. I got my education at Tuskegee and at Meharry. I always was a diamond right out in the open. I was never in the rough. Not then and not now."

I swallowed hard and held his gaze without smiling. He needed to know that I wasn't kidding. Because I wasn't. And even though a tiny piece of me wanted to cry, I pushed it down because even if he didn't know and even if they didn't know way back when, I was always enough. Always.

After that, we all sat in an awkward silence. Me sitting with my spine stick straight with a relaxed facial expression. And him, along with several others, looking nervous and apologetic.

I let them squirm.

I didn't say much after that. I was pleasant for the rest of the dinner and was gracious to my hosts when I left. Even the grey-haired dude. But here's what I wish I'd said:

"You know what? I am scrappy. But not the kind of scrappy you think. Scrappy in that I know who I am. Scrappy in that I know how to put my mouthpiece back in and fight even when the fight isn't fair.

That kind of scrappy.

And also. . . you, sir, don't get to call me that. Because just maybe the 'rough' you speak about is in your eyes and was never the students like me at all."

People say some crazy stuff sometimes.



He hurt my feelings. But that's okay because I'm scrappy. Now playing on my mental iPod. . . 

Sunday, March 3, 2019

60 seconds.

"All I need is one minute of your time." - Mary Mary


Sunday rounds today, my senior resident and me

Me: "What questions do you have for us?"
Her: "I don't have any questions. Y'all answered them. Thank you."


Me: "Okay. Is there anything else you need from us before we go?"
Her: "May I have one minute of your time?"
Us: *looking at each other*
Me: "Sure. Tell us what you need."

She extended both of her hands out toward us, gesturing for each of us to take one of them. We did.

Her: "I'd like to pray for you. Is that okay?"

My breath hitched. I didn't want my resident to feel pressured or uncomfortable. Had I been alone, this would have been a no brainer. Fortunately, my resident didn't seem to mind.

Our patient then closed her eyes and clasped our fingers inside of hers. Softly, deliberately she petitioned on our behalf. She spoke over our careers, our families, asked for our protection, patience, wisdom, compassion and that we be empowered with the energy we need to keep going. She asked that no weapons formed against us ever be able to prosper and that we always, always recognize that we have been commissioned as healers.

Commissioned as healers, she repeated.

After saying amen, she hugged us one at a time, tangling us up in her IV and oxygen tubing. It was so tender and genuine. It was like she had made up her mind to infuse us with as much grace as she could possibly muster.

"I receive this," I told her. "Thank you so much."

"Let Him use you," she said.

And we nodded in response.

If you had any idea the things that this patient was battling, you'd fall to your knees crying. I'd hoped she'd ask me for something like an ice-cold Coke from the vending machine. Or a pack of gum. Or even a latte from the coffee shop. But instead, she wanted to give.

To give, man.

The older I get, the more I recognize that a heartfelt gift often blesses the giver more than the recipient. I'm not sure where my resident stands when it comes to faith, but I love that she was gracious and welcoming of what our patient had to offer.

Yeah. That.

That reminds me: A friend of mine who doesn't believe in God once said, "But that doesn't mean I turn down folks praying for me. I need all the prayers I can get." Remembering that made me smile and wonder less about my resident.


We finished rounding in time for me to scoot across town to join my family for church service. As I slid into the pew to join Harry, all I could think of was this tender prayer spoken over my life and that of my family by a critically ill patient who had every right to think of no one but herself.


I closed my eyes. Lifted my hands. And decided to return the favor.


Happy Sunday.

Now playing on my mental iPod. . .


There was a code blue on the ground floor. Weird considering no code blue is ever called there. I mean, not that they don't happen there. But it never reaches the overhead sirens since almost always it is happening in the emergency department where everyone is already there and ready.


I was on the tenth floor when I heard it. Typically those nearby run to get there. In case they are the first responders, the rule is to try. I wasn't near. But I did wonder what it was all about. Grady is busy, though. There's lots that I wonder about. And then I go on to thinking of something else.


A few hours passed and I was up in a patient's room. He was an elder and I'd come back to check on him one more time. The patient in the bed next to him was talking about what he thought had happened. "Somebody got shot in front of Grady," the roommate said.

"Really?" I replied. "Oh my goodness. I didn't hear that."

A nurse in the room turned away from what she was doing and chimed in. "No. That's not true. Some young brothers pulled up with somebody who'd been shot. Dumped him right on the curb in front of Grady like some luggage and pulled off." She shook her head with hard disapproval. "That's a damn shame, right?"

"Wow." That was all I could think to say. I wondered if my family and friends had heard this on the news and were worried. "So . . .no one was actually shot in front of Grady?"

"No, I don't think so, But isn't that awful? Just throwing somebody on the ground not caring if they live or die? And pulling off before you could see what happened?" She sucked her teeth. Hard.

"You said 'brothers,'" my patient said. The nurse paused, balled up her espresso-colored fist on her hip and curled her lips at him in response. She didn't speak--instead she just cocked her head for emphasis. My patient turned back toward the television and said nothing else.

"That's just TERRIBLE." That's what the neighbor-patient said. Then he said it like five more times in case we didn't hear the first time.

"Wow," I mumbled. Again, because I still couldn't think of what else to say.

After that it was silent for a few moments. That nurse wiped my patient's fingertip pad with an alcohol wipe and pricked it with a lancet. He winced. She rubbed it in this tender way that showed that she cared about his discomfort. I liked that.

"Man. I hope the guy who got shot did okay," I finally said.

The nurse kept shaking her head angrily. Then she moved on to flushing my patient's IV line. "Me, too. Such a damn shame," she said. "Who does that?" The roommate made a few more comments about "not knowing where this world is coming to" and "letting our ancestors down."

No one disagreed.

Finally, my patient, a Grady elder, spoke:

"Look to me like them kids who dropped him off cared a whole bunch about whether he live or die. Bet you they somewhere distraught about they friend."

"Friend?" the nurse said. Her face looked disgusted and her lip jutted out. "FRIEND? With friends like that, who needs enemies?"

The Grady elder turned his head in her direction and looked at her; his face impassive. "If you didn't give a damn about somebody, would you bring them someplace where you KNOW they'd do everythang to save they life if they got shot?"

He kept his eyes trained on the nurse. We all stayed quiet. He raised his eyebrows and went on.

"Look to me like that was they man. Somebody they really cared about and hoped would be okay if you ask me." He shrugged and started fishing around in the sheets for his remote control.

I stared at him, taking in every word. I didn't want to miss a thing. The nurse was frozen in her tracks and the neighbor had (finally) stopped talking. All eyes were on the elder.

"The real question is this: Ask yourself WHY would some young brothers in a city like Atlanta feel scared to bring they friend into Grady after he got shot? WHY would they not be willing to stay long enough to make sure they friend don't bleed to death? You really thank it's 'cause they don't care?"

When nobody had a reply, he let out a chuckle and shook his head. His expression suggested how naïve we sounded.

After that, he turned his television back up and settled into The Steve Harvey Show. And didn't say another word. But you know what? He didn't have to.

Damn, I love this job.

Happy Sunday.