Mind on The Run: “The Last Time I Saw Yina”
(Musical Accompaniment: “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” — Written by Van Morrison, sung by Rod Stewart — a spiritual rhetorical question to “The One.”)
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“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone — just when you need it the most.”
— A. Bartlett Giamotti, former commissioner of baseball, renowned for his insatiable love of the game. He died of a heart attack at age 51 while still in office.
The Baby Deer
When the doe started making repeated visits early this spring to the thickets at the perimeter of our backyard, my wife and I knew that we were soon to be foster parents to her offspring. The two babies were born in April somewhere around baseball’s opening day, out of sight behind the thick shield of giant weeds (some the size of Christmas trees). Sporadically and unpredictably, one or both of them would venture plaintively out of their hidden abode to investigate the grassy part of our yard. I suspected they were searching for their mother or for food, or for both.
Every morning that spring and summer, I hoped that this would be my lucky day and I could smile upon them as I was pensively sipping my coffee near the kitchen window. I watched them grow from toddlers to lanky-legged teenagers. One fall day I had to confront the reality that, like my own children, they had grown up enough to abandon the thickets and perhaps never return — just when I needed them the most.
The Mascot of Magee
I called him the “Mascot of Magee” because I never knew his real name and because his photograph roamed around the hospital’s newborn nurseries depending on where his nurse mother was working that particular day. The first time I saw it, the warmth of his happy innocent smile quenched the implosion in my crazed, hurried mind: LATE for rounds, LATE back to the office, LATE for supper, LATE for everything time has to offer!
I imagined he was about 4-5 years old and a former premie because of the narrow shape of his head and the blue plastic glasses he wore. His large eyes and the spectacles framing them reminded me of the optometry billboard in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”–the iconic metaphor for the powers-that-be which scrutinize the moral behavior of human beings, especially those who abandon virtue in lieu of greed and materialism.
“Are you an honest physician?” I interrogated myself. “Did you tell the truth to those parents in its entirety?” “Do you bill insurance companies with 100% accuracy?” If not, I argued that the photograph of the young lad should replace my own on the bulletin board which displays all the Pittsburgh area pediatricians grouped by practice. My old, ugly pseudo-smile should be covered over by his gentle authentic one, as cynicism should be replaced by innocence.
On the mornings I was most hassled and most desperate, he was there to transform my mood with a mere non-judgmental glance. I began to seek him out on my Magee rounds. After several months his photograph disappeared for good as if I had scared it away, and nobody could offer an explanation.
Just as if the Mascot of Magee had never existed, his photo was gone — just when I needed it the most.
The Last Time I Saw Yina
The last time I saw Yina I had absolutely no premonition that it would be our last professional encounter. It was one of those cool days in early September which harbingers the coming of autumn and the boys of October who bring us the World Series. She was very uncharacteristically 20 minutes late because of heavy midday traffic on the Parkway West. When asked by the office staff if I could still see her two children, I paused before remembering that I was the “poster child” of all doctors late and behind. “Bring them right in” I exclaimed, to the chagrin of the nurses.
I was actually quite sanguine that late morning, having sipped my coffee while smiling at the baby deer; this was compounded by the rare excitement of rediscovering the Mascot of Magee while on rounds. Additionally, Yina always had every detail of her children’s paperwork impeccably and thoroughly completed so that all I had to do was sign it. Please don’t get me wrong! Tina’s three young children had very complicated medical histories: severe allergies, eosinophilic esophagitis, intractable eczema. One son had a gastrostomy tube in place; in spite of this he was a track star like his older brother and younger sister.
Because of her great organizational skills, we always had time to reminisce. We were like “fraternity brothers,” having both attended the University of Pennsylvania, just in different eras — by the time she was an undergrad the kegs on Saturday nights were history. We both were involved in sports at Penn: I was a reticent sports writer for the campus newspaper; she was a track star — an elite sprinter who paved the way for female athletes in the Ivy League. I became a practicing physician; Yina earned a degree in the fledgling field of biomedical engineering. She became one of those mothers who selflessly puts her career on hold to raise her children and evolved into a full professor of motherhood. She remained a fierce advocate for the sciences in the Pittsburgh educational system.
Last year she devised a protocol to keep her son properly hydrated through his gastrostomy tube while he sprinted in a series of track events. All I had to do was sign off on it. In fact, as the years had passed, I had begun to sign off on all their paperwork without hardly looking at it, knowing that somebody smarter than a doctor had completed it and had organized every visit to a specialist for all three children.
I have always been fascinated by what a pediatrician can learn about the “past lives” of the mothers he follows; most rarely talk about their pre-parenting exploits and honors. I think I knew more about Yina simply because I felt comfortable pulling it out of her. She had a pervasive broad smile when she talked that opened the door to her heart.
Of course, when we learned of her unexpected death one week later, it sent shock waves through my blood of red and blue (Penn’s colors). They stated that she died of a heart “rupture,” but I insist that that diagnosis was a fabrication. Her heart and soul were too powerful to falter. Certainly, neither the chill rains of autumn nor our Pirates demise in the playoffs could break the heart of this woman of grace and dignity.
I would like to think that she was untimely grabbed from this world by powers beyond our control — that “The One” brokered a trade: the world is awarded three young track phenoms to challenge Hussain Bolt (the “World’s Fastest Human”) in return for a divine administrative assistant extraordinaire — one to organize the paperwork of a world too complex even for the Almighty Himself.
All of this just when WE needed her the most.
Yes, those of us who depended on her will have to endure in her absence. I can already hear the thunder from above: “Fill out the paperwork yourself, Kovatch, you lazy, neurotic, good-for-nothing, ……”
I never saw the baby deer or the Mascot of Magee again. I will indeed see Yina this time next year when her legacies come in for their annual check-ups. Track stars don’t stop running just because they cross the finish line!