Editor’s Note: Dr. Vidya Bhushan Gupta of Bergen County, New Jersey was a noted physician and scholar and member of the faculty of New York Medical College. He was the father of my dear and old friend, Pranav Gupta–and a voice of encouragement and reason to those, like me, who knew him well. Over the past year, Dr. Gupta was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis–and declined rapidly. He passed away tragically on Friday, December 12, 2014 from complications of his disease. Dr. Gupta firmly held out hope for a lung transplant and the below essay was his submission to Healthcare reflecting his feelings of fear and ambivalence. A few days before his untimely death, he was number one on the regional transplant list. We publish this essay on our blog and in our journal in his honor. It expresses his overwhelming humanity in the face of his struggle with his own mortality.
Sachin H. Jain, MD, MBA
Dead Man Walking sensitized me to the plight of people on death row—the uncertainties surrounding the death sentence, when, how and if; the petitions and fights over petitions; living in the present, from day to day, with past memories, guilt, regrets, vows I will not take if I get a second chance, and fears about pain and breathlessness. Why prolong the misery when everyone has to die one day? Let’s get it over with. Why prolong the agony with little chance of ecstasy even if death is commuted with grant of a few more years of life? Death or no death, uncertainty is punishment too.
The diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis has put me in a similar predicament—slow death on an uncertain date, whether the sentence can be commuted or deferred by lung transplant; uncertainty about what awaits me the next day, breathlessness, chest pain, weight loss. Baggage of the past—what if I had not lived in Africa, was it the dampness in my indoor pool, was it the occasional Benson and Hedges I smoked for a few years as a youth to assert my masculinity, was it too much stress, or was it some bad karma in this life or a previous one. Uncertainties—will I get a lung in time, how bad do I have to get before I get better; when, if at all, will the scales of bad-enough to get on the transplant list and still-good-enough for a transplant strike a balance.
Yes, I’m free to walk but I, too, walk like a condemned man—panting and puffing like a Victorian steam engine. I have a noose around my neck which is being pulled by an uncertain hand, sometimes steadily and sometimes jerkily, like the thread of a kite, until I asphyxiate to the point that my mercy petition for lung transplant is accepted and, then too, it is uncertain when the noose will come off or not. And ironically, the resolution of this uncertainty is linked to someone’s death—an uncanny feeling, someone who might have had many joyful years ahead of him or her, who will die but continue living through the lives of hopefully many to whom he gifted his organs.
And there are my victims too. My wife, who is suffering empathetically by witnessing my pain, breathlessness, and weight loss. Her golden years of dream vacations have been replaced by anxious years of waiting on me with melancholic foreboding. And my children, whose dreams of their children knowing and learning from their grandfather and having three-generation vacations across the globe have become nebulous.
But I will hang on precariously, with a petition to live—live for my wife and children’s dreams, because my life belongs to them, too. As Khalil Gibran said in The Prophet, I am the field which they sowed with love to reap with thanksgiving. The field will die with me cheating them of their fruits. While I will be relieved of all pain at death, their pain will linger for a long time. I am petitioning for hope, rejuvenation and realization, not for remorse and retribution.
By Vidya Bhushan Gupta
Photo credit: Zach Dischner