This Cardiac Care Patient Taught His Doctor What It Really Means to Have HEART
Benny's large size and uncommon blood type put him on the heart transplant waitlist for years. So where did his perpetual good nature come from?
Mark Smith for Reader's Digest
Two weeks after I graduated from medical school, I began my internship at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. It was the summer of 2008. My first assignment was a monthlong rotation in the cardiac care unit. All the patients in the unit were on ventilators except one, a large Hispanic man named Benny* who was riding a stationary bicycle and watching Judge Judy in his room. He was in his 40s, stocky, barrel-chested, and broad-shouldered. Unlike other patients, he was not in a hospital gown; instead, he wore a New York Giants T-shirt and jeans.
I discovered that Benny was living in the hospital, waiting for a heart transplant. He’d been in the same small room for months, rotating through a series of activities to pass the hours: watching talk shows and sports, reading under the fluorescent lights, jotting in a journal, and allowing new doctors like me to examine him. He’d seen so many students and residents during his stay that he felt comfortable giving tips to the nervous young men and women who poked and prodded him in an effort to keep his condition stable as he waited for his new heart.
I found myself stopping in to see Benny often, not just to examine him but to talk.
Although the turnover in the cardiac care unit was dizzying, one constant was Benny. At the time, the median wait for a heart transplant was around six months, but his large size and rare blood type complicated his case. There he was, day after day, riding the cycle or watching Judge Judy, as though he were someone whose apartment just happened to be in a hospital.
“You good?” I asked one day, a week or so into my internship, giving him the thumbs-up sign as I stuck my head in the door.
“Excellent.” I looked down at my list—there were 13 more things to do before rounds—and started to close his door.
“You got a minute?” he asked.
“I have a minute. Less than minute.”
Benny muted the TV. “Matt,” he said as I cautiously approached him, “I see a new group of interns in here every month. And when the moment strikes me, I like to offer feedback. Just sitting here, waiting, I encounter all types. Good, bad … Mostly good …” His voice trailed off. “Matt, you come across like you’re always in a hurry.”
“That’s because I am.” My spine unconsciously stiffened.
“Seems like talking to me or to just about anyone is another box to check for you.” He lowered his head. “I’m just saying this because I know you’re young.”
“And impressionable,” I whispered. This kind of criticism was hard for me to take. Not knowing stuff as a young, inexperienced doctor was one thing, but no one wants to hear that his patients think he doesn’t care about them. Still, Benny’s comment didn’t feel like a dressing-down; his voice had an off-the-record feel that put me at ease. I sat down in the chair next to his bed and exhaled. “No, you’re right,” I said. “The truth is, I feel completely overwhelmed.”
“It kinda shows.”
I shook my head. “I suppose I should just get here even earlier.”
“It’s not about that. Not about that at all,” Benny said. “Take a look at what you’re doing. You’re sitting down, and we’re having an actual conversation. Normally you just—”
“Plan an escape route the moment I enter the room.”
“Yeah. And half the time you’re looking at your papers or over your shoulder and not listening.”
“But I am listening,” I insisted.
“Perception is reality, Matt.”
“Thanks for looking out for me,” I said as I backed out the door.
After that encounter, I found myself stopping in to see Benny often, not only to examine him but also to talk about my shortcomings and how I was struggling as a new doctor. Long after my assignment in the cardiac care unit was over, I went back to him, and together we watched countless hours of terrible daytime television.
As the months passed, I tried to convince myself that Benny’s progress mirrored my own, and I liked telling myself that when I finally mastered all the qualities necessary to make me a good doctor, Benny would get his heart. But as my difficult intern year wore on, I realized this was unfair. Through sheer repetition, I was becoming a more competent physician, but the changing of the calendar brought nothing for Benny. He simply waited and waited. Some days he moved up on the transplant list; on others he slid down, depending on the conditions of other potential transplant patients. It seemed as if he were stuck in an absurdist play.
I’d often joked with Benny that while I felt as if I lived in the hospital, he actually did. Our roads were diverging, and the notion I’d created about our simultaneous journeys was breaking down. One evening in late December, I took a break and popped in to see him. I couldn’t resist asking. “Anything going on with the wait list?”
“No news is bad news,” he said softly, like air being let out of a balloon. “But I have faith. I know God has a plan.”
He had said this many times before, and it was, strangely, the biggest chasm between us. At first, it embarrassed me; then it angered me. How could he believe that this was all part of a master plan, that a supreme being was choosing to confine him to a hospital, waiting for a heart that might never come? Eventually I came to see that, our care notwithstanding, his faith was the primary thing keeping him alive. His perpetual good nature, his resilience in the face of near-fatal setbacks—all was built on the foundation of his belief that God would take care of him. I had to admire the intensity of his belief, even if I couldn’t share it.
“It’s not fair” was all I could answer.
“What?” he asked. “What’s not fair?”
“Medicine,” I said, feeling my voice tighten, “is the only place I can think of where everyone is miserable. Doctors are miserable, patients are miserable, support staff are—”
“I’m not miserable,” he said. He locked eyes with me. “Really, I’m not.”
I knew he was telling me the truth.
As I neared the end of my intern year, Benny was still in the hospital with no end in sight. On my final day, I sat on the edge of his bed.
“So this is it,” he said. “Last day, right? You made it through.”
“I did. It was crazy. And pretty amazing.”
“Proud of you, Matt.”
I wanted to tell him that he was the embodiment of courage and patience—a kind man who had been given a raw deal and rarely complained. I wanted to say something we’d both remember. But I didn’t. Instead, I repeated the phrase that I had said so often to him—words I’d tossed off to countless patients, colleagues, and myself: “You’re gonna get through this.”
“I’m sure I’ll see you around,” he said, extending a fist.
He was the embodiment of courage and patience—a kind man given a raw deal.
I stayed on at Columbia for my three-year residency. As time passed, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d get my board certification—the sign that I was a real doctor—before Benny would get his transplant. By the spring of 2011, his heart had regained enough strength to allow him to move out of the hospital while he waited. One afternoon as my residency neared its end, I felt my pager vibrate: HE GOT THE HEART.
I was in the middle of a classroom teaching a medical student about cardiac resuscitation. I dropped my marker and sprinted down a flight of stairs to the cardiothoracic intensive care unit, nearly trampling a couple along the way. I quickly scanned the area. No, nope, not him, not him, nope, no, no, YES! Benny! YES!
I sidled up to the team of surgeons and anesthesiologists standing in front of his bed. Benny was unconscious; he was attached to a ventilator and had a dozen tubes going into his arms. An intern was presenting his case.
“Do you guys know this patient’s story?” I asked, butting in to their horseshoe. “Do you know anything about this guy, Benny Santos?”
They did not.
“I’ve known this guy a long time,” I said. I was hoping to come up with an anecdote that offered a glimpse into the life of this remarkable person, but how could I possibly explain what he had been through or what that struggle meant to me? I turned away from the doctors and took a few steps closer to Benny, and I smiled. The stories could wait. “Take good care of this guy,” I said softly. “I’m not his doctor anymore. Now … just a friend.”
Before I left, I picked up the remote control from the nightstand next to Benny’s bed, turned on the TV, and flipped through the channels until I found Judge Judy.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
Courtesy Broadway Books
Adapted from The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly by Matt McCarthy.