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Dear Doctor

I know you're tired. Overworked. At the end of what was no doubt a long shift. I know you're looking forward to dinner with your wife and small daughter. Trust me, I don't want to be here, either, but I need to tell you a story. An important one. I wish I could tell you it was brief. It isn't. Thank you for taking the time to listen. It means more to me than you know.

On Wednesday morning, my husband woke up with back pain, localized behind his left shoulder blade. Not in itself uncommon, since he worked on computers all day. I gave him a massage before he left for work, taking our daughter to preschool on the way. I went about my morning as usual, sitting at a computer myself and working on my current novel. I was pleased when I reached my word goal. I made lunch and took it to the living room couch. Once I was settled, I picked up my phone to catch up on social media, emails, et cetera, but the first thing I noticed were several missed calls from an unfamiliar number. They'd left one voice mail. I played it.

Within seconds of hearing the voice and words, I was on my feet, pacing as I called the number back. She answered immediately. It was one of my husband's coworkers. He’d collapsed at work, couldn’t move his legs, and had asked someone to call an ambulance. For context - this is a man who’d rather drag himself to a hospital on broken legs than pay for an ambulance ride. He loathed unnecessary expense. This was enough to tell me something was seriously wrong. Later, I learned that my healthy, relatively young husband had been truly terrified for the first time in his life. His heart had been pounding so hard he'd thought he was having a heart attack.

How relieved we were to find out it wasn't a heart attack...

But I digress.

I rushed to pick up our daughter at preschool and take her to a neighbor’s house, then raced to the hospital where he'd been taken, north of his work and roughly forty minutes from our house. My breathing was shallow, my limbs stiff, my attention hyper-focused. I remember those details. I remember not thinking a lot, just doing the next indicated step. Don't panic until there's a reason to panic, right? I've always been good in a crisis. I don't break down. I stay rational.

My veneer of calm nearly shattered when I was finally admitted to the ER and found him, not in a room but alone on a bed that had been wheeled into a hallway, around a corner, close to the doors where EMTs were currently bringing in a new patient from an ambulance. There was a tiny privacy screen set up at his feet, and a small metal chair crammed in the cavity between screen and his exposed toes.

I touched his feet first. They were freezing. He was too tall for the thin, rough blanket to cover all of him. His eyes were closed. His skin was the palest I'd ever seen it. I almost lost it then and there. For a split second, I thought he was dead. I called his name. He opened his eyes. His first slurred words were, "Hi baby. I'm cold."

I mentioned that I'm great in crisis? I went to work. Within a few minutes I had massaged his feet to warmth, commandeered another blanket, and teased him about the amount of painkillers he was clearly on. His eyes were glazed, but he cracked a few smiles. We held hands. I stroked his head as we waited for a doctor, a nurse, anyone...

Minutes stretched, laced with uncertainty. My stomach hurt, tight and empty. I rationalized that if something were seriously wrong, he wouldn't have been left so long without someone checking on him. They wouldn't have put him around a corner. Out of sight.

After thirty minutes, I went to the desk and asked when the doctor would be coming by. They said they'd find out. Another twenty minutes passed before someone came. It wasn't a doctor, but a kind orderly who told us it was time to get my husband up and walking.

"My feet are still kinda numb," my husband said, frowning.

The orderly replied, "That's okay, we'll take it slow."

Watching the larger man hoist my husband to his feet was alarming. At first, all of his weight was being supported. I thought he was going to fall. But after an initial bought of what I concluded was dizziness from the drugs, he rallied enough to shuffle a few steps. The orderly let him go, and he shuffled a few more, clearly out-of-sorts and in pain. Then he was helped back to the bed and we were told the doctor was coming.

That's when I saw you for the first and last time. That's when we chatted so briefly about our daughters, about how you were on your way home. You told me that my husband had most likely pinched a nerve in his back and had a flare-up of sciatica pain, which cut off feeling to his legs and was therefore the culprit which caused his fall at work. I said he'd never had sciatic pain in his life, but that I had, and I'd never lost feeling in my legs to the point of collapse. You assured me it wasn't uncommon.

"My toes are still numb," my husband said, faintly, still lying down beside us.

"Sciatica," you said, calmly. Confidently.

I wasn't convinced. "Did you take any images? Ultrasound? MRI?"

"No," you informed me. "We only order those tests when numbness is linked to signs of a stroke or more serious symptoms. Usually in patients over a certain age." You looked at my husband. "If you're still experiencing pain after a few weeks, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. They might order more tests or an MRI. For now, take the muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories. You'll be fine."

Your voice was kind. You were tired. Overworked. Just doing your best. Trying to wrap up and get home to your family.

I understand.

And I'm sorry, but I have to tell you the rest. What you missed. If you'd taken an ultrasound of his heart, you'd have seen it. The tiny tear in his aortic valve that caused his collapse at work, the numbness in his legs, shortness of breath, disorientation, searing back pain... It was all there, laid out for you. I'm so sorry you didn't see it. Didn't hear it in his words: back pain, numb legs. I know the truth is a lot to bear. The weight of your decisions coupled with simple facts that -- had they been laid out on a page in black and white -- would have been straightforward. It was his age that blinded you. His physical fitness. His apparent strength. And... you were tired. Overworked. I understand that you're human. Fallible.

This is the hardest part.

That small tear you missed grew and finally ruptured two days later. He lived two full days before his heart literally broke. I unknowingly watched him die, a ticking time bomb in his chest, oblivious and hopeful that with enough rest, he'd be fine. Just pinched nerves. He ran errands Thursday. Even went to work for a bit Friday. Dying or not, he was unstoppable. And no matter how much I urged him to rest - worried about his back, how pale he was - he pushed through. He'd get through it. Everything was fine.

Friday evening, I left him on the couch watching television, as I often did. I kissed him goodnight and asked him if he needed anything. He said no. He told me he loved me. Thanked me for taking such good care of him.

He went to bed that Friday night and never woke up.

I'm not telling you this to cause you pain. Really, I'm not. I'm telling you because I want you to remember. As you watch your daughter grow, as you celebrate her milestones, hold her and laugh with her, share her pains and celebrations, I want you to remember a man who can't. Remember a daughter without her father. And hold your own daughter a little tighter. Listen closer to her words. Treasure even the simplest moments more deeply. Let gratitude be your gravity. Because joy is sweetest and deepest when anchored by loss.

Remember him.

I forgive you.

With love,

A widow and mother


These details surrounding Don's death are true. After many months, it's become clear there is no path forward for legal accountability, only for acceptance and forgiveness. I ask to you respect my privacy on the matter. Thank you.

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