Seven On, Seven Off

Click on the audio player above to hear a reading of the essay by author Harrison Reed.

 

hospital hallway

 

“What do you do all week?”

The question is never intended as an insult. But, for the record, it sounds like an insult.

If you ask me this, you are probably sitting across from me at a moderately priced bar, on our first date, wondering why I asked you out on a Monday. Your shoulders are scrunched up a little too high, like they are guarding your neck, and you take small sips of beer to hide lulls in the conversation. You look at me and think I must be far too young to do anything important but far too old to float through life.

I do both.

If I told you it was survivalist compartmentalization, you probably wouldn’t know what that meant.

That’s OK. I just made it up.

“But seriously, what do you do all week?”

•••

I drink coffee.

I drink coffee at a small coffee shop on the west side of town. There’s a front patio and a comfortable couch inside that’s usually empty. From the patio I can enjoy the open air in the summer and on the couch I can sit and think for hours.

I drink coffee.

I drink coffee at a small coffee shop on the first floor of the hospital. There’s a crowd of employees occupying the tables and a long line trailing from the cash register to the door. From the crowd I can tell I will have to gulp hot liquid as I bounce up six flights of stairs and, in line, I realize I might not even make it to the register before my pager chirps and I hurry to leave.

•••

I run.

I run along a stretch of grass and trees. There’s a massive lake to my left and, closer than that, a small municipal airport reserved for private jets, film crews, and organ transport. The lake offers a cool breeze in the summer and a dearth of snow in the winter. It buffers the world. The airport makes the road long and straight without interruption.

 

I run.

I run down a clean, white hallway. A special group of small rooms is ahead of me and, closer than that, a door with restricted access. The room offers tubes, needles, and monitors for a person having the worst day of her life. It buffers the world. The door makes me pause and take a deep breath before I enter.

•••

I write.

I write stories and essays and the words you are reading now. I create a file folder on my computer and I send several e-mails when I am done.

That folder means creative catharsis, as memory becomes text. The e-mails mean I want to share.

I write.

I write a painful note. I create a heading at the top that reads “Expiration Summary.” And I sit in silence when I am done.

That heading means her worst day became her last day. Expiration, like she was an old carton of milk and not a human being.

The silence means I don’t want to share.

•••

I talk.

I talk to my friend at a pub downtown. We discuss sports and music and movies. The content is silly but the purpose is to fill the void.

I talk.

I talk to her husband by a vending machine outside the ICU. We discuss life and death and cancer. The content is serious but the purpose is to fill the void.

•••

“So, what do you do all week?”

The answer depends on the day you ask.

I spend seven days giving away bits of my soul. And the next seven trying to get them back.

 

‘Seven on, Seven Off’ was originally published in the May 2015 edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants. You can read it and other narratives at JAAPA.com.

Author: Harrison Reed

Harrison Reed is an emergency medicine and critical care physician assistant (PA-C) in Baltimore, MD. He is the Associate Editor of the Journal for the American Academy of PAs (JAAPA) and regularly contributes to the New England Journal of Medicine's In Practice blog. He is the creator and editor of The Contralateral.

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