I FOUND HIM near the nurse’s station in his wheelchair, receiving a cup of pills in his hands. His right leg, badly mangled in the accident, had been screwed and pinned back together and wrapped up in a soft cast. He couldn’t bend it at the knee, so when I wheeled him around and down the hallway to his room in the locked unit, I was mindful of the large sweep his outstretched right leg made as we rounded the corners.It was going to be a difficult conversation. A history of narcotics dependence after a previous back injury, and his mother was concerned he was heading down that road again. Yet who could deny the painfulness of his present circumstances, the pieces of his lower leg held together by steel hardware? He was in need of effective pain control whatever history he might have. He scooted from his chair to the bed and lay flat on his back. The doctor addressed the patient.
When the topic of pain came up, he told me it was excruciating. You wouldn’t have guessed it by the look on his face. But that’s not something you can reliably go by in a person who’s had a brain injury. The expressions on their faces often don’t match whatsoever the way they’re feeling inside. He asked for more pain medication, and I wanted to give it to him, but I also wanted to be thoughtful. I wanted us to arrive at a definite plan so that we were both on the same page — so that his pain might be relieved, so that I might be a good steward.
I visited the nurse at her station and returned with a proposal in mind. There were boxes of tea on his bookshelf I’d only partially noticed the first time I entered the room, and when he saw where my eyes were pointing, he sat upright in the bed, swinging his injured leg toward me. He reached for a small gold box beside the square yellow canister of jasmine tea, and the very space we were sharing suddenly softened. The doctor and the patient vanished, swept away by the jolt of fresh air that had entered the room.
“Here, have some ginseng.” He handed me the box.
And I smelled it — I opened the box and just smelled it.