Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The lady in red

Mary Liz Overcash
Galveston, Texas, United States

Photo by Dim Hou on Unsplash 

The long-term care facility was tucked in the back of a strip mall, behind restaurants and sporting goods stores, as if someone had hidden it away. As I wandered through the halls looking for my patient’s room, I didn’t see a single other person. I knocked softly on the door of Room 214 and heard a weak voice tell me to come in. It took a minute for me to spot my patient. She seemed to be almost part of her bed—her white hair and skin and gown blended into the mass of blankets and pillows surrounding her.

“Hi,” I repeated, unsure of how to begin. “I—my name is Mary Liz, I’m a student and a new hospice volunteer. I’m going to be visiting you for a bit every week—if that’s okay with you.”

She considered me for a second. “I see,” she said hoarsely. “Well, I’m Patricia…You can sit down if you like.”

“Well, Patricia,” I began slowly, “can you tell me a little bit about yourself? I don’t know—maybe about your family?”

She shifted slightly, then her words started spilling out. She told me about her abusive ex-husband, whom she had married at eighteen. She told me about her four estranged adult children. She told me about her son who had committed suicide just a year before.

After a brief silence, I pressed on. “Are there—is there anyone in your family that you’re still in contact with? Anyone that comes and visits you?”

There was a flicker of light in her eyes. “Ava,” she croaked. “Ava is my great-great-grandbaby. Her dad brings her by every couple of weeks. She’s just about one, and when she comes, she sits on the bed and holds my finger in her little hand—just like this—and she talks to me in her little voice…”

Encouraged by the shift in her mood, I tried to think of other positive relationships Patricia might have in her life.

“When I came in today, I saw a flyer on the wall outside listing all the events they’re holding for you guys this month,” I said. “Do you go to any of the events? Have you made any friends here?”

Her expression changed abruptly. “I don’t want to know the people here,” she told me flatly. “I don’t want to be around them. The people in this place aren’t living, only dying.”

I learned more of Patricia’s story over the weeks that followed that first visit. When I asked her about her life at the facility, she scoffed. She always jumped at the chance to tell me how much she hated being here on hospice care. She spoke frankly about the hurt and loneliness she felt, and initially I felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of her suffering and unsure of how to respond to it.

But she seemed to enjoy having me there to commiserate with her, and then she would open up about other things—she talked for a long time about her favorite meals to cook and about the Christmas cookies she would make for her brother every year. I brought her a little package of her favorite candy every time I came, and each time I was rewarded with a begrudging smile.

During one visit, Patricia was reminiscing about her wedding—that was before her relationship with her ex-husband had soured. “I wore a red dress,” she said proudly. “My mother was horrified that I didn’t go the traditional way, but I wanted to wear red, so I did. I walked down the aisle to that song ‘The Lady in Red.’ Do you know it?”

I found it on YouTube and turned up the volume on my phone as loud as it would go. Patricia nodded her head as the first notes started playing and sang along in her broken, raspy voice. I felt tears well up in my eyes, and I blinked them away.

Our visits developed a rhythm—I would listen to her speak frankly about her grief and anger and pain; I would ask her questions about her life; she would ask for updates about how my classes were going. One week in May, there was a break in the familiar rhythm when I came with a small potted orchid instead of candy. She looked at me, eyebrows raised. “Orchids are my favorite flower,” she reminded me, then squinted at me. “Why a flower this week, then?”

My gaze shifted to the ground before returning to her face. “I, um—I’m taking my finals this week. So I’ll be going home this weekend for the summer. This will be the last visit for a while.”

We sat in silence for a few seconds, a heavy understanding lying between us. “I see,” she said. “I’ll miss our talks. You give me something to look forward to.”

That summer, I wondered how Patricia was doing.  When I came back to campus in the fall, I emailed the hospice volunteer coordinator, asking if I could start visiting Patricia again. The response made me uneasy—“I have a new patient for you,” it said, without mention of Patricia. I searched online for Patricia Hayes.

Her obituary contained only the most basic biographical facts about her—nothing about the person I had come to know—nothing about her fierce stubbornness or her love for her great-great-grandchild or her warm laugh. The few lines of text were an affront to the stories she had told me, and to her story. Patricia’s obituary was a true testament to the way she had been treated in life—her experiences ignored, her suffering hidden away.

I visited my new patient the next week. Her name was Rachel, and she looked at me with wide, scared eyes.

“Rachel,” I said gently, “tell me your story.”

MARY LIZ OVERCASH is a third-year medical student at the John Sealy School of Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. She hopes to become a family medicine physician and practice in an underserved area in Texas.  

Fall 2023



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