Monday, August 17, 2009

The Measure of Efficiency

It was a cold dark autumn night. The trees were undressed into their skeletal remains silhouetting against the dark skies. The ambulance siren from far away echoed through the still chilly air. It was a quiet night when he was wheeled in.

He wore horizontally striped Pajamas. There were scribbles of ink over the stripes above his knees, as if he had thought of something and sketched it for fear of leaving it to the vagaries of his memory. The ink spots were partially washed out but the essence remained. His body was a frail metaphor to the winter of his years. He spoke fluent French in a Parisian dialect, in an environment where English was the norm. Nurses eyed him with inquisitiveness smiling to his minimal complaints offered in this language for lovers.

He was weak and barely able to stitch a few words into a sentence. The breath that eluded him seemed to come in short bursts where he could whisper his minimal requests. “I am cold.” Or “I need a pen.” Simple requests when granted afforded him great joy expressed in an affable smile.

“I wish I had more time.” He would say frequently. In his late seventies according to the actuarial charts he had met the median for males of the 21st Century. But he was in need of more time. And time was running out. His once healthy heart skipped more beats in a minute than it once produced. A pacemaker to pace the heart was suggested and placed within him but to little avail. His heart muscles weakened by the lack of blood flow  over years became reluctant to the demands. His heart was like a boxer battered and bloodied barely able to hold up his arms in victory 

“I don’t know what to do!” he would reflect at this calamity of misfortune. His desire to live was at odds when face to face with the limits of survival. One battle would be lost another won.

The arguments of throwing more resources at this aging man seem destined for failure. No matter what, time was knocking at the door and ready to extract its vengeance. Placing him on an artificial pump was considered but he was not a candidate for a heart transplant. So after many of his low voiced urgings, he was begun on an experimental regimen.

On the fourth night the midnight shift nurses reported that he had kept his room light on all night against their entreaties. The following morning he was sitting up in his bed, propped up by pillows around him. There were ink stains on his fingers and pieces of paper strewn on the floor. He clutched to one piece of paper in his left hand straining the angio-catheter. His face appeared content. 

“How are you feeling today?”

“Great.” He replied.

“No shortness of breath?”

“Oh yes, of course.” He replied with a smile. He looked at the monitor for confirmation, but 40 beats a minute is not the answer that corroborated his statement.

“You seem comfortable today?”

“ Un peu." "A little.” he translated

“Anything I can do for you?”

“Another day.”

“Pardon me?”

“I need another day." He expressed. Then whispered in French, "J'ai besoin d'un autre jour”

“You might get a lot more based on your improvement.”

“Oui?” He smiled weakly and closed his eyes.

Meanwhile the arguments at the resource optimization committee kept getting louder as this man begged for a few days of living. The voices drowned any medical logic and calls for “nature to take its course,” came from various agencies documenting physical data and potential survivability. Yet doggedly, something in this man’s yearning was so deep and so desirous of an outcome that, the cacophony of irritated voices drowned in their own frustration.

“Merci.” He said the following morning, raising his hand at the wrist while the weakness anchored his arm on the bed. His bony hand delivered the pieces of paper he was holding and said, “Please, to my son,” he said barely above a whisper, “When he comes.” With that he closed his eyes and drifted softly to sleep to dream the dreams.

His son a tall replica of his aging father wept by his father’s side. His face seemed to light up upon receiving the pieces of paper.

“My dad worked for this all his life.” He said in perfect Midwestern American accent.

A year later the newspaper carried an article of a physicist who had figured out the Specific Impulse to improve efficiency of the high by-pass jet engine that would revolutionize air travel and reduce costs by a third to a half.

The man who wanted more time had finally won his place in history. He had extracted more efficiency from a jet engine using lesser resource in fuel, giving millions of travelers the cost effective means of seeing faraway places and family members.  This physicist had toiled after this intellectual treasure most of his life and found it in the gasps at the end of his life. It all happened in that “One more day.”

Life is strange and sometimes invisibly cruel that while his heroic attempt was transpiring in those waning hours of that night before his last, the “life managers” were arguing about the efficient use of resources to grant him that extension.

Sometimes the temper of times has to be wisely matched with the temper of humanity. One never knows where the next fountain will spout from in the deserted landscape or oil will gush from which muddy soil. But life always dictates as time recedes.


  1. Your writing style is beautiful, in the face of such serious topics. I am thoroughly enthralled with your posts.....thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts.

  2. Thank you for your comments. Knowing there are a set of eyes reading what I have written makes it worth while.