Thursday, February 07, 2008


Despite having had ample time waiting in line before making it to the counter, he took several more minutes to study the menu.

Man: So... what comes in a Number 1?

Girl at the counter: An Egg McMuffin, hash browns, and your choice of coffee, juice, or soda.

Man: Does it come with anything else?

Girl at the counter: No.

Man: Really?

Girl at the counter: Sir, what you see on the picture is what you get.

Man: [staring up at the Combo menu] Really? Nothing else, huh?

The drive-thru was about 5 cars deep, so I parked and came in thinking I could be sneaky and avoid the line, only to be delayed by a man looking for hidden food items not portrayed in the large combo-meal picture menu. I saw the car I would've been behind pick up their food from the drive-thru window and drive off. I should've just stayed in the drive-thru.

I don't know why he was having quite the difficult time understanding the combo-meal concept that has permeated modern-day American culture. By his girth it was suggestive that he was likely no stranger to fast food, yet he appeared to be lost in a foreign land. Perhaps this was his first time waking up early enough to order breakfast.

I looked to my right. The other line. The fast line. The line I didn't get in. They were zipping through customers like a wood chipper. I thought about moving over to that line, but the people behind me from my line had already beat me to it.

All I wanted was a medium coffee. And after a brief thought, I figured I'll just drink the nasty hospital coffee today and turned to leave. The coffee at McDonalds is nowhere close to being worth the time spent standing behind this guy.

As I turned, right behind me was a woman that I vaguely recognized. I hesitated a bit, trying to identify her. But she recognized me first.

Mrs H: [with a sad smile] Hi, do you remember me? I'm H's wife.

Of course. It came rushing back. Oddly, the first thought that came to mind was that I was setting a bad example by getting food at McDonald's. Of course I was only here to get a cup of coffee, but she doesn't know that. Then the second thought was that she shouldn't be eating here either. But who knows, maybe she's here just to get coffee as well.

After a cursory greeting, we both stood there, uncomfortable with each other. Strangers connected by a remote incident. Behind me, I could hear the man interrogating the girl at the counter about the contents of the breakfast burrito.

Mrs H: H died, you know.

No, I did not. It turns out that after storming out of our hospital, Patient H and his family sought out a second opinion, which my attending staff and I recommended. The second surgeon also agreed that Patient H's cancer was at a very late stage, but he was more aggressive and offered an attempt at an operation. Patient H's family, thinking they had nothing to lose, decided to go for it. If he survived the operation, he had a 25% chance at another 5 years. Otherwise, he had about 6 to 9 more months left.

Tragically, the surgery was more than his body could handle and he died of surgical complications shortly after the operation.

Mrs. H fidgeted with her hands as she told me the story.

Girl at the counter: Sir, can I help you?

Amazingly, the man in front had placed his order. I turned around and ordered a medium coffee.

Girl at the counter: That's it?

I smiled and nodded.

Mrs H: Dr. THW, let me get that for you.

Me: Wha-? No, that's OK Mrs. H, I got it.

Mrs H: No, no. Please. It's the least I can do.

I paused, and then relented, slowly putting my wallet back in my pocket.

Mrs. H then placed her order, paying for my coffee.

I waited with her at the counter while they filled her breakfast order. Then I walked with her to a table. I thanked her for my coffee. I looked at her standing next to her tray and she reminded me of how my dad looked in the months after we had lost my mom to cancer. I remembered the emptiness and how there were no words that could comfort my dad, and the immense sadness he carried.

I put my coffee down and gave her a hug.

Mrs H: [quietly] Thank you.

I didn't say anything. Instead I just nodded. There was nothing to be said.

I picked up my coffee, wished her well, and walked out to my car.