It was my first year of medical residency. My brain was stuffed with all of the technical information to wear the doctor’s white coat; however, I lacked the knowledge born of experience. And I knew it. He was a patient, kind man, somewhere in his 50s. His skin was yellowed with jaundice; his belly swollen with fluid. His liver transplant had failed. The place of hope and victory was now failing him. His second lease on life was coming to a close.
The head doctors had already informed him of the tragic news, and he bore it like a champ. Then came time to inform his girlfriend, a woman who had built a life with him. And he called for me, the low man on the totem pole, to break the painful news. I still do not understand why he charged me to inform his love of his impending demise, but in bits and pieces, questions and answers, it came out. “His liver transplant has failed,” I explained. “That is why he is feeling so poorly…There is nothing we can do…He likely has six months to live.” Tears filled both of their eyes, and they bore their grief quietly. It was a weighty honor to speak such words.
It was odd to put an expiration date on his body. It struck me how short six months really is. In six months, I would be through six medical rotations, moving onto my next year of residency. It would fly by with me gritting my teeth and clinging for emotional survival. I would not be counting the days as a blessing, but a test to endure which I prayed would quickly pass. I would be looking to my next goal, next step, next horizon. I was always jumping the next hurdle.
But six months is all this man had. How would he spend his time? What would he and his girlfriend do? Would it be a time of pain and anxiety? Were there debts to pay and relationships to mend? Were there unchecked boxes on his bucket list: to see the world, to go skydiving, to play guitar? What was left undone? What were his regrets? Would he be cognizant through these remaining days?
From what I have witnessed, impending doom both sends people into an anxious, fearful frenzy and focuses them on their deepest priorities. There is denial, passive resignation, grief, and anger. Eventually, the things that were once all consuming (wealth, beauty, identity, even a clean house) and irritating (traffic, dirty dishes) fall by the wayside. The foreknowledge of one’s death is both a curse and a blessing.
If I knew I had six months to live, how would I live?
My default would likely be one of inherent selfishness: checking off my bucket list, doing something wild and crazy, loving my husband and family. But then there is the hope of being with my Lord that reframes life on this earth. For my struggling faith to be finally fleshed out in the arm of my loving Lord would be sweet.
Where I struggle now is how to live my life when I do not know when I will be called to the Lord. I’m easily consumed by others’ expectations and defined by my accomplishments. After a taxing week at work, my mental checklist feels weighty and overwhelming. It’s often filled with menial tasks, such as cleaning the house or paying the bills, rather than my greatest priorities: resting in the Lord and caring for my family. The minor things feel more consuming and important than my stated hopes and deeper goals. Resting in the Lord and building his kingdom are often pushed to the side and feel like a pipe dream.
In the everyday and mundane, I want to be faithful and live in integrity. In whatever time frame that the Lord gives, my hope is to be mindful of each day and to do these simple things with his love.
I wonder…If given six months left to live, how would that change you?
Aimee is an Asian American physician, recently married to the love of her life. She loves deep, honest conversation, being silly with her husband and pondering God’s presence in this broken world. She is honored to contribute to Red Tent Living, but requests anonymity in respect for her personal and professional privacy. b
Oh, yes yes yes to this beautiful essay. Thank you for giving voice to your unique experience as a physician who deals with these things. You characterize the tension between ourselves when our mortality is not foremost and our deeper spiritual aspiration to be worthy of our Lord. God bless you and thank you for enduring the training and entering the healing profession. I’m so grateful for your words.
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My husband went to Jesus 3 years ago after a short 6 month illness. Love this take and point of view. If we had known we would have done more but he was at dr visits, hospital stays and the final 45 days in the hospital,. But I know that his faith is in full bloom and walking with Jesus. Thank you for this reminder.
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