I remember why I decided to apply to medical school when I was young. I also remember the reasons that I chose to be an emergency physician. Recently, I found another reason to be thankful for the career I’ve chosen after having the opportunity to care for a 92-year-old man.
It was one of those days that was not crazy busy and one of those times when, for some unknown reason, I chose to take a few extra moments to be a bit more social. The patient in room 3 was having mild chest discomfort and fatigue, but his vitals were normal, and as I signed the ECG with normal sinus rhythm that was more normal than those of many patients half his age, I walked into the room to meet Walter.
After a typical history and physical examination, I was impressed with how healthy and talkative Walter was as a nonagenarian. Continuing on, I asked him the usual: where he lived, what he had done for a living, how long he had worked for the city, and if he started that job after high school. His answers were not the usual, and I was in for a treat.
Walter told me that he went into the army in 1943, and only after the war did he get his job with the city. Yes, he was in World War II. He told me several stories about the war. As an African American, he fought in the Pacific alongside four other men from Cleveland as part of the segregated 93rd Infantry Division, seeing action on Bougainville Island in 1944. As a rifleman, the most common designation at that time, Walter saw his share of action. He recalled an early battle he was in, and he could hear the bullets from the machine gun cutting through the leaves overhead. “I will never forget that sound,” he said and then told me that one of those men from Cleveland stood up and immediately fell back to the ground, shot in the head. This was the first of those in his company from his hometown of Cleveland who was killed in action.
Walter’s chest X-ray revealed pneumonia, and he spiked a fever in the emergency department, so antibiotics and an admission to medicine were in order. Before Walter went upstairs, he shared more stories about his unit. Though treated differently than the white units, he was proud to be a soldier. There was no hint of resentment or regret, only pride about his service. He told stories about the way the United States and the rest of the world reacted while the war continued, the difficulties fighting in the islands, and how daily casualties numbered in the thousands. He remembered the hope that he would not be in that number but that someday he would come home to his girlfriend, whom he had known since high school. He was going to ask her to marry him when he returned.
The most surprising response was to my question of how it felt when he heard the Japanese surrendered. His answer was “lonely.” Not what I expected to hear. He explained that he felt lonely because his job was done and “I just wanted to go home to be with my girlfriend.” Walter proposed, and they did get married, raising five children and living their lives in Cleveland together until he lost his wife several years ago.
I went to sleep that night feeling fortunate, humbled, and honored. I am fortunate to have met this former soldier, humbled by his service and selflessness in going to war for his country, and honored to be able to care for him. When I went to work that morning, I had no idea that I would meet this World War II veteran and hear his stories. What an amazing reminder that as emergency physicians not only do we have the greatest job in the world, but we often have opportunities to find hidden treasures like Walter as long as we take the time to look for them.
Dr. Queen is an emergency physician at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland and assistant residency program director for the Cleveland Clinic/MetroHealth emergency medicine residency program. He is the chapter President of Ohio ACEP and a former member of its Board of Directors.