Walking the Ghost Road

Working as a doctor in small towns on the High Plains, I have learned to do without a lot of luxuries. Those practicing in larger centers would consider many of these things necessities, such as being able to consult someone to the bedside, ever.

I do, however, have one luxury that is exceedingly rare in world of Modern Medicine, time to reflect. As I often only see 5-10 patients in a 24 hour period, I sometimes have a good deal of this.

Moreover, now that I have an infant at home, the time I have to reflect while at work is even more precious. I have yet to find a way to sell my 2 month old daughter on the value of quiet contemplation.

Since high school, I have tended to reflect while walking. When I screwed up a test, or embarrassed myself at school, that evening I would go on a long walk, sometimes for hours. I would meditate to the slow movement of my small town past me.

I still do this. Today, I took a walk on the slight hill above the hospital. A “wellness path” winds its way through the buffalo grass, prickly pear, and yucca. I walked the path in laps, waiting to be called in.

Those Who Came Before

Halfway through a lap, I came to the single grave that marks the halfway point. It is a modest affair. A small white headstone with only three letters marks the spot.

The earth over the grave is covered in the same high plains vegetation as the nearby pastures. Prickly pear and rabbit brush grow up around the headstone. Eventually, someone erected a very sturdy pipe fencing around the grave, likely to keep cattle from rubbing on the grave marker.

Perhaps most interesting, this lonely, solitary grave belongs a fellow physician. In the late 19th century, a wayward doctor had settled in this water stop town on the railroad. The townsfolk laid him to rest on a slight hill that overlooks the shallow, cottonwood-dotted valley of a seasonal stream.

I lean against the iron fence and stare up at the night sky. It is a wonderfully clear and dark night. I savor the lack of light pollution and the horizon to horizon views. Scanning the southern sky I see the milky way.

The Ghost Road

In Lakota cosmology, the milky way is known as the Ghost Road. It is the path all spirits must walk on their way from this world to the next. I let myself get lost in the imagery of walking through the galaxy as a spirit.

As I imagine my spirit side-stepping stars, I remember my fellow physician next to me. He walked that road over 100 years ago as a young man. Less than forty, it looks like. It is near impossible to imagine the life and profession of a true frontier doctor.

Nonetheless, profession and location bind us together. We have both doctored and cared for people in this little town. Even if the march of time makes it impossible for us to know each other as people, we are related.

This is also a Lakota idea – Mitakuye Oyasin – We Are All Related.

I reread the plaque explaining this grave.

A Life in a Paragraph

The good doctor had arrived in 1880. Two years later smallpox erupted in town (could he have imagined an era when doctors would have never seen a case of smallpox?). An old cow puncher came down with disease, and the good doctor cared for him.

The old cow puncher recovered, but the good doctor contracted smallpox. He eventually succumbed to the disease and was laid to rest on the same lonely windswept piece of prairie where I talk my contemplative walks.

“A good doctor…and a good man.” The plaque states.

Does the brief story on the plaque have meaning for me as a physician?

This physician died in the service of others, and I complain about not feeling fulfilled by modern medicine. In his calling, he sacrificed everything. Noble? Maybe, but also a complicated legacy.

From the plaque I also learn that he left behind a wife, who had accompanied him from the East. It does not say what happened to her out on the alien High Plains, alone, in grief. He also left behind an isolated, frontier town without a doctor.

How many went undoctored in his absence? I will never know.

Doctors Get Sick, Too

The irony of his death from the disease he was treating is not lost on me. Physicians are part of the societies they inhabit. Inextricably linked. In medical school, I often heard vague citations that physicians have higher rates of heart disease than other professions.

Most of these statistics came from before we started to turn the tide on heart disease. This was before cholesterol drugs and anti-hypertensives were mainstream, but when smoking still was.

Now, on the internet, I read about the burden of stress, anxiety, and depression doctors bear. It is no surprise, mental illness and its complications (i.e. addiction) seem to be an epidemic sweeping our country.

Why should doctors be immune? Especially, if we spend hours and hours caring for people with these diseases, is it no surprise some of it might rub off on us? You cannot vaccinate yourself against despair, loneliness, and disconnectedness.

Yet, We Are All Related.

I step away from the fence, feeling indebted to this long departed colleague of mine. Many, many things have changed in Medicine. Nonetheless, some things seem not to change.

Being a doctor is a hard job. It demands a lot. More than any one person can reasonably be expected to give. Yet, we do give, repeatedly and sometimes to excess.

The good doctor on that hill on the High Plains gave all he had to Medicine. It was sacrifice, yes, but I don’t want to glorify it. I will not say Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Medicina Mori.

Nonetheless, for a moment, I feel connected to a different kind of Medicine.

Not the Medicine of RVUs and production targets and treatment algorithms, but a deeper calling to serve humanity.

I’d like to think I can be doctor without sacrificing everything. But it is a delicate balance, and more often than not and I am too far one way or the other.

My eyes trace the line from his headstone to the Ghost Road in the southern sky.

At least, I think, I am not alone on this road.

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