A knock on the door and a voice wakes me up, “Por favor, Doctora, come to the men’s ward. A patient is in pain.”
It’s 1961. I’m a last year medical student and my position in the hospital “on-call-hierarchy-ladder” stands firm at the bottom. I’m “el ultimo perro,” the last dog, the one who gets called all night long at Hospital San Miguel, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. I’m also a young Polish immigrant in Argentina, not familiar with many of the local expressions.
I rush downstairs and ask a nurse what is going on. “It’s that old Sicilian patient, Señor Giuseppe Coconato, the one who throws kisses to every nurse. He seems to have abdominal pain,” she says.
I find the patient’s bed among rows of thirty snoring men. He lies still, holding his distended stomach. Bushy pure-white hair, eyebrows, and whiskers dominate the dark Mediterranean features of this miniature old man. He thanks me for coming. I examine him, evaluate his history, signs and symptoms, and promise him he’ll soon get medication for gas pains and indigestion.
As I walk away, while scribbling orders on his chart, the patient asks in Spanish, speaking in his near-unintelligible Sicilian accent, “Me van a poner la chata esta noche?” I’m not aware that he means, “Are they going to bring me the bedpan tonight?” I don’t know that word.
Instead, I understand, “Me van a poner la tapa esta noche?” which signifies, “Are they going to lower the lid on me tonight?” Slang for, “Am I going to die tonight?” That’s what I think he’s saying. Immediately, a nurturing instinct that I’m happy to put to use—after six years of night and day book-worming and very little one-on-one contact with patients—forces me to stop walking. So, after an abrupt hundred and eighty degree swivel, I face the patient.
“Are you married, Señor Coconato?” I ask in my Polish accent.
“Yes,” he says, “to Sebastiana, my wife of fifty years.”
“Then how can you have such terrible thoughts tonight? You’ll get over your sickness soon.”
Señor Coconato gives me a puzzled look. I believe I’ve reached him and take advantage of the momentum.
“Do you have children?” I ask.
“Yes, eight beautiful bambini. Carla, Tonio, Maria—” He stops abruptly and adds after hesitating, “Me van a poner la chata esta noche?”
I’m failing. I attempt a different approach, “Do you believe in God, Señor Coconato?” I ask.
“Yes, I do, and also in San Genaro, the patron of— ”
The Sicilian’s words get louder and halt as he twists and turns with a heartbreaking expression on his face. I sit on his bed and place my hand on his shoulder, convinced I can talk him out of his thoughts of death. “I won’t leave until you stop talking nonsense, Señor Coconato.”
“Signore Gesu e la Virgo Maria, have mercy on me!”
“If you stop complaining, I’ll let you go to sleep,” I say. “Meanwhile I’ll stay here.” Then I pledge with conviction, “I promise you solemnly that in the next twenty four hours, as long as I’m on call, nothing will happen. So think about something else and you’ll feel better.”
“No. No. Per favore, mia dolce Dotoressa, me van a ponere la chata questa notte?!” Señor Coconato screams, now in fetal position.
Several patients sit up on their beds, rubbing their eyes in disbelief and confusion. But before I have a chance to counsel him again, Señor Coconato stops breathing while pushing until his jugulars pop up and his cheeks turn purple. Oh! He is dying as he predicted! I frantically search for his pulse. But then he relaxes and shuffles himself around. His face takes on an expression of angelical bliss. At the same time, a suffocating odor fills the semidarkness of the ward.
Sorrowful, I realize my horrible mistake. My ineptitude. I’m not fit to become a doctor!
I pet the patient’s hair. “Please, forgive me, Señor Coconato. I didn’t know you needed to go to the bathroom . . . I’ll call the nurse right away to clean you and your bed. It will never happen again.”
He graces me with an understanding glance and grabs my hands in his. The rough, powerful hands of a lifetime of strenuous physical labor. The hands of a fighter for his family. I kiss his forehead. His deep black eyes, narrow and petrified until a few minutes ago, now are round, placid, smiling. I feel an immense tenderness toward this forgiving, gentle soul, whom I’ve hurt by prolonging his physical suffering.
Little does he know how much we have in common. He, an immigrant from an impoverished, far away Mediterranean island; I, an immigrant from a war-stricken northern European country. Both of us have been seeking freedom from poverty and gloom in a dismantled, revolution-plagued Argentina. We are one . . . .
Eduvigia (Junia) Ancaya is a nonfiction writer who has taken creative writing courses at USF and numerous courses at OLLI. She has recently published two nonfiction books honoring her parents’ saga during WW II : Struggle for Freedom: Marta’s Courage—A Memoir and Stefan’s Journey on the Road of Sorrows. A native of Poland, who escaped Communist tyranny in 1946, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. She is a retired physician.
Her work will be part of an upcoming OLLI class called Meet the Author! For the inaugural reading series named in honor of OLLI friend and beloved OLLI instructor, Brenda Tipps, the class will welcome four authors of creative nonfiction, fiction and memoir. Recommended reading : Mine by Sarah Viren; Give by Erica Carpenter; Struggle for Freedom: Marta’s Courage by Eduvigia (Junia) Ancaya and The Airship: Incantations Adam Tipps Weinstein. This class is already full, but Cath Mason hopes it will be the first of an ongoing series.
15 Replies to “An Unforgivable Mistake”
Junia! Thank you for this wonderful piece. I loved it and was so touched by your humbling experience from the early days of your career! Beautiful!
I just discovered my story here. Thanks for your uplifting comment!
Ha! You’re a great story-teller. The piece is both funny and touching at the same time–hard to pull off. Bravo!
Thanks Bob! A difficult event happened in my life at the time this story was published so I stayed on the moon for a while–and I thought it wasn’t good enough to be published. Your words have given me renewed energy!
Wunnerful story–is it true?
Thanks Don! Yes I’m guilty as described. . . .
What a great story…simple, yet so poignant. I know that even when we want so badly to help others we often goof it up. Wonderful & memorable too….. you’re a thoughtful, humble writer.
Hi Sara, as always, you give me so much courage. Thanks! After this event in my life, I REALLY needed courage . . . .
Junia– what a wonderful piece! You were trying so hard to comfort this man as you thought he feared death. Hilarious and sweet. You are a great writer!
So grateful Anne! This was one of those events you have to wait at least 60 years to tell about it (like I did). You are very sweet . . . .
Junia, I loved your piece!
Thanks a lot, Lucinda!
What a painful story in all the best ways: humanity, suspense, humor and compassion. Beautiful writing, Junia!
Angie dear, you are one of my excellent writing instructors of many, many years–so patient with me. Thanks! your poetry has inspired my writing . . . .
(See? I remembered to place the 4 ellipses at the end of the paragraph, instead of the normal 3)
Junia, you are so compassionate, tender and kind. I loved your story. I learn more and more about you, and grateful. Cheers!