I wrote this piece during my GP rotation as a fifth year medical student. The GP and I had been visiting an elderly gentleman who was at the terminal stages of heart failure. He passed away during my time there. The inspiration, interestingly, came to me when I was swimming one weekend, and my own shortness of breath underwater reminded me of the very scenes of our home visits.
Monday morning, my GP tells me that Mr. S. passed away over the weekend.
On Saturday, I went swimming.
I met Mr. S. as a medical student. Through all the home-visits, handshakes and awkward eye-contact there was one observation not even a medical student could miss: breathlessness.
I have never been a good swimmer.
Mr. S. was always breathless. He was breathless when he moved and he was breathless when he was still. He was breathless when he talked and he was breathless when he was silent. He was breathless sometimes, and other times, he was even more breathless.
Soon enough my strokes slip out of sync. Fatigue creeps like a snake through my vessels, stabbing its lactic acid deep into every muscle.
I recalled the only conversation I had ever had with Mr. S. alone. We talked about his house; the one that he lived in now by himself. He had built it some thirty years ago and he wished to die in it. He became fatigued after only a few exchanges and politely excused himself from our conversation to stare up at the ceiling. Feeling helpless, I let my eyes rest on the view of the sea through the sliding doors of his bedroom. To my surprise, Mr. S. mumbled, ‘You can keep talking.’ I wondered how it might have felt to pass time here, alone, with only the sound of one’s own breathlessness for company.
As oxygen changes from being a commodity to a luxury I bite into the air, like a boy longing for cake. I ask myself how much longer I can stand being underwater. My chest, my mind, every inch of my body protests.
Mr. S. passes away.
I stop swimming and rise to the surface.
Suddenly, neither of us are breathless any longer.
– Jin Xu
I came to NZ from China at the age of 10. I am currently in my final year of medical school. Outside of work, I love to read and write. Though English is not my first language, I think the wonderful power of creativity is inherent to anyone, and transferable between any languages. The hospital, to me, beyond the scope of a clinical work, is also an amazingly fertile place for the seeds of creative and reflective writing to grow and flourish.