Windows to the Soul

I looked into the eyes of a patient for brief moments when they opened their eyelids before falling asleep again. Their eyes were like wells, but there was no sparkle in them like there is in a healthy person. The patient had a bacterial infection of the blood that had attacked their heart resulting in a large vegetation (collection of bacteria and other gunk) on one of their heart valves. Pieces broke off this vegetation, traveled through the blood vessels, and seeded infected clots in the patient’s lungs and spleen. That wasn’t all though. Their body was so inflamed some of the proteins in their blood were destroyed, consumed, or their production reduced. At first, the patient needed transfusions of red blood cells and platelets to survive.

In other words, the patient was sick. They were not just sick, their chance of death within 30 days increased by 16% each day their blood had bacteria in it according to one study.1 Their chance of death was about 40% by another estimate.2 It took us about a week of antibiotics to clear the infection from the patient’s blood, but that wasn’t the end of the patient’s need for antibiotics because of their heart infection and septic clots. They would need at least 6 weeks of antibiotics and likely several procedures and surgery to fix their heart.

I looked into the patient’s eyes each day, hoping to see a sparkle there that would suggest they were awakening from the depths of illness. I hoped and yearned to meet them rather than just examine their feverishness. I was rooting for them. I root for all my patients, but this patient’s eyes were so empty I knew they needed my thoughts more than the other patients I was caring for at the time.

It would take over a week, but one day the patient’s eyes shone with the flame that I think of as the soul, that spark of life. The patient was here with me. They could tell me their name and what was going on. They were awake! How the weeks ahead would unfold could not be predicted. In medicine, we don’t have a crystal ball that tells the future any better than a meteorologist can forecast the weather 10 days out.

My rotation would end before the patient was close to healthy enough to leave the hospital. They were sleepy when I last saw them because they were recovering from their first heart procedure. I touched their shoulder briefly and looked into their eyes. They were so strong and so brave. I reminded them of this and of how much they’d healed since we met. I told them to hang in there. It wasn’t much, I knew, but it was the best I could offer as I prepared to join a different medical team.

In the hospital, we often meet people at the worst crossroads of their lives. We do our best to help them navigate to a destination of better health, but we often don’t get to see where our patients end up after we care for them. We must be comfortable with unfinished odysseys. So, to conclude my telling of this patient’s story, the last time I saw the patient with the wells for eyes, their eyes shown with the brilliance of victory. I will remember them by that brilliance.  

References:

1. Minejima E, Mai N, Bui N, et al. Defining the Breakpoint Duration of Staphylococcus aureus Bacteremia Predictive of Poor Outcomes. Clin Infect Dis. 2020;70(4):566-573. doi:10.1093/cid/ciz257

2. Kuehl R, Morata L, Boeing C, et al. Defining persistent Staphylococcus aureus bacteraemia: secondary analysis of a prospective cohort study. Lancet Infect Dis. 2020;20(12):1409-1417. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30447-3