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May 1, 2002

The Siren and the Minotaur

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JAMA. 2002;287(17):2288. doi:10.1001/jama.287.17.2288-JMS0501-7-1

The Minotaur was a bullish, thickheaded creature. He had hands the size of racquetball racquets that crushed oil cans like fortune cookies but could dissect the finest tissues, handle the most friable serosas, and decipher the most intricate anastamoses. He barked orders, complained about incompetent residents, and grumbled about sleep deprivation. He was indigestion, reflux, and lactose intolerance incarnate.

He thought me an utter idiot—incompetent, lazy, and weak-spirited. He had the unique ability to stupefy me with a simple, answerable question, leaving me red-hot in the face. He spat at my ignorance. His glance was vinegar.

He regarded those around him as inferior, perhaps even indentured. In his eyes, no one was as diligent, dedicated, or determined as he. He trusted no one and respected only a few of his mentors. He was Hamlet—a solipsistic fellow reigning over his hospital, his castle, his kingdom.

Physically, he was a brick shithouse. Philosophically, a martyr. Socially, a tantrum-throwing tyrant. Yet, he was tired and tormented.

For this, I loved him fiercely.

During the day, the Minotaur stormed the halls, sussing out abnormalities of laboratory tests and equilibrating electrolyte imbalances. When fecund Petri dishes with multi-drug resistant strains were reported, he would bellow for more thorough sensitivities. He juggled the minute details of cardiac-enhancing drips, diuretics, and colloid solutions, dazzling the whole team with his complex mental calisthenics. He would insist on careful attention to detail and scold us for incomplete patient reports. He did not praise. He did not nod his head in agreement. He reiterated that our "best" was not good enough by marching off to the next patient's room.

I wondered if he knew pleasure. Perhaps being in itself was pleasurable to him. Perhaps he thrived by living life rapaciously. I could only imagine what drove him to perform, day-in and day-out. Was it a burdensome, magnetic force? Was it an opiate-like addiction? Was it a compulsion toward perfection with a take-no-prisoners mantra? I would never know. The Minotaur burrowed deep into life. Not only did he suck the marrow out of it, he reconfigured and spliced its DNA.

But even Achilles had a heel. One night on call, I left my favorite note-writing pen down in little Rosa Garcia Marquez's room. I journeyed down to the third floor in the wee hours of morning to retrieve it. As I tiptoed across the room, fumbling around the dirty laundry container and a wooden rocking chair, I tried my best to not wake Rosa or her tiny 9-month-old roommate, Sonya.

The curtains were pulled wide enough that the moon's light flooded Rosa's bedside. I could see my Bic 4000 with its luxurious gel grip. What I missed in the milky luminance was Thomas the Tank Engine. With a purposeful and salivating lurch, I grasped for my pen only to find Thomas under foot. I tumbled backwards and hit my head with a thwack.

Perhaps days went by. Maybe seasons. When I finally came to, I hoped I had Rip Van Winkled my way through medical school. But I still had a short white coat on and Sonya was howling. I heard a nurse say, "She's at it again." And then, a deep, husky voice replied that he would check in on her. A tearful Siren, Sonya had beckoned the Minotaur who whispered gently to her; "Sonya, my love. Sweet, sweet baby. I'm here, Sweetheart." Although I recognized that I could indeed move my toes and feet, I remained paralyzed on the cool linoleum.

He reached out to the bandaged and splinted infant. Her voice suddenly softened. Sonya had been intentionally burned with hot grease by her now-incarcerated mother. Whether from pain from her wounds or from fear and anxiety, she was inconsolable. No nurse could calm her. She relented only to the soothing of sedatives.

The Minotaur, with his apeish hands, reached into the crib and pulled Sonya out. As he nestled her against his broad chest, he sank into the creaky wooden rocker and whispered sweet nothings. "Sonya, my love. My beautiful, beautiful girl. Don't cry. Don't cry, Honeybear." And then, he paused. In a faltering, tearful voice, he asked, "How could anyone want to hurt you? How could someone be such a monster?"

And so he fathered the burned and scarred peanut into the early morning hours. One bottle of formula and a fresh pacifier later, the Minotaur and the Siren were inseparable in each other's arms. Morpheus had escorted them both into a realm of peace and contentment.

Editor's Note: Please send murmur submissions (personal essays, fiction, or poetry on either medical or nonmedical topics) to Teri Reynolds at treynol@itsa.ucsf.edu.