The Last Patient

By Elisio Diprinzio

I don’t know if I was excited or terrified to have him as my patient. Roger Harp was undoubtedly the most famous man in the world.

The hospice center was beautiful, and Roger not only had his own room, but his own wing. After all, it was his charity money that built this center. Roger could cure anyone of any illness. It began with a family friend in a small town in New Jersey. A few local news stations picked up the story that a young man’s leukemia had been cured miraculously and the man claimed Roger solely responsible.

National figures were outspoken against Roger, calling it a conspiracy and a hoax, a heinous mocking of religion and medicine alike. But it was true. Roger hid away for a while because he didn’t want the attention. Later on, he told me that eventually he accepted his gift and the consequences, good and bad. He didn’t like the fame, but looked at it as his calling in life. It weighed on him, but he loved his work, and the world loved him.

Then one day, after millions of patients, dinners with kings and queens, charity galas with international business moguls, and countless celebrity appearances, the news came that shocked us all: Roger was dying, and he could not cure it.

My first visit went by in a haze. The shock that he was Roger Harp, and that I, a lowly student was part of this man’s medical team, was difficult to overcome. But eventually, as with all patients, it became normal, routine even. He was younger than many of the patients at the center, and more intellectually lively. I looked forward to my short time with him every day.

My visits were monotonous in the beginning, “Any changes today? Anything else we can do for you?” So eventually we began short conversations during my few months with him. We talked about his travels mostly, and the people he met and cured along the way. He would try to recall bits of languages he had picked up, and small gifts people at given him in return. Roger also loved architecture, and he would try to describe his favorite buildings to me, like the Eiffel tower or Seattle Space Needle, always ending it with “I just can’t do it justice with words, you gotta go sometime, doc.” I explained to him that I’m still a student, not a doctor. I think Roger called me it mostly because he took some humor in the fact that it annoyed me.

It was amazing how grounded he stayed, even after all these years as the most popular man on Earth. He never went to college, but was extremely sharp, even now, as sick as he was.
Sometimes Roger liked to talk about my schooling. “Doc, I really don’t know a lot about medicine,” he told me one afternoon. “I’d look things up on Wikipedia now and then, but I never had the time to study it, you know?”

“I never thought about that,” I observed absently, looking at his chart for new lab values. “But I guess you didn’t have to.”

“No, the process didn’t really work like that. I just did the same thing every time. I can’t explain it, but I could feel that they were better afterwards.” He paused and let out a deep sigh. “I would talk with them for a short time, on the days people weren’t lined up for miles for me. I liked to talk with them, that was probably my favorite part.”

He looked out into the sun through the floor to ceiling window of his room, squinting and pursing his lips tight. Roger spoke softly, “I miss that.” He blinked very hard a few times, and didn’t make a sound. Then, he started crying. A sharp sob broke through his mouth, and I jolted back to reality.

I ran over to him, mad that I had been so removed from the conversation today. “Mr. Harp, Mr. Harp, I’m sorry, are you… do you want some privacy?”

My hand went to his shoulder. He felt frail under my grip, but I was frozen next to him now and my fingers tightened and my chest tightened and I could barely breathe. “No,” Roger said with a sharp intake of air. “No, you can stay.” He kept his eyes focused toward the sun and his shoulder began to shake under the sobs. They came further and further apart, and it felt like hours, until, finally, they weren’t coming anymore. Roger’s eyes were still wet and puffy, and he looked up at me, “I’m ok now, thank you.”

I wasn’t ok, though, still not used to this emotion, this sadness, especially from such a prominent figure. I sat down on a stool near the bed, not looking at Roger, and couldn’t think of a single word to say.

“Hey. Hey doc.” Roger said to me, his mouth still pursed, but there was a slight crook at the end, not quite a grin, but almost. It broke through my haze and I looked at him inquisitively.

“People miss things when they’re going to die. I met a lot of people who thought they were going to die, and they liked opening up about it. Their families, jobs, hobbies, everything.” He paused, “Travels, and architecture. Their lives. They wanted to talk about it.”

I realized that Roger’s connection with the people he healed far surpassed the actual biological healing process. Roger himself admitted he didn’t even know how he cured illness, but he did know how to leave an impression. I realized that our own relationship had little to do with science or treatment; there wasn’t much the doctors could do from a medical perspective. But I still knew my visits meant something to Roger. That there was some healing, some ameliorating spirit I could still give him, and it didn’t have anything to do with being a medical student.

I still couldn’t speak, so I nodded. “Thanks for talking with me doc,” he said.

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