Helen was a renowned lecturer on Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost, and the youngest professor of American poetry to be tenured at her university. But by the time I met her, she was no longer the assured professor who delivered inspiring performances to her students. When I admitted her to the hospital, she was a 56-year-old female with aggressive glioblastoma multiforme, an incurable tumorous cranial interloper that was literally squeezing her mind from within her own skull.
She could no longer recite poetry, but along with her husband Charles (both names have been changed), she was able to answer questions about her symptoms and medical care. She was being admitted with nausea and severe headaches from the cancer crushing her brain. It had been nine months since her diagnosis, and even though the end was near, until me not a single doctor had asked her about her wishes for medical care at the end of life.
“What do I want?” she said. “I just want to be surrounded by my books of poetry.”
“I am sorry,” I said. “What I meant was, what do you want the goal of your care to be?”
For the next hour I introduced a vocabulary as foreign to her as spondee and trochee were to me. Life-prolonging treatment and CPR, ventilators and intubation, DNR and DNI — terms that she would need to learn quickly. Unfortunately, I was trying to teach her a new lexicon in the midst of the haze of nausea and hospitalization.
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