The Eye of the Obnoxious Bird — by Dr. Mukta Panda

He was showing me paintings that hung on his living room wall. He had painted these over the years and wanted me to have one. He pointed to a painting of a Bosnian girl (whom he had met in Seattle) with a very serene expression on her face. “Or you can look at this one”, he said with a chuckle as he turned around pointing in the opposite direction; “it is interesting but not very pretty.” He called the painting -“the obnoxious bird, the bird from down under”.

What got my attention however was the eye of that “obnoxious bird”. I asked him how the painting got its name. He explained that he had seen the Emu at the zoo in Seattle and was captivated by the expression in the bird’s eye. “Looking at the bird I felt as though the Emu was telling me: even though I am not the prettiest of birds I am proud of who I am”, he said.

As I looked at the painting of the Emu, as I looked at the bird’s eye, I felt as though I was looking right into a face that said with an air of unblinking confidence, “I am proud of me, my family, I will not give up”. That was the face of Rob Rittenhouse.

I was introduced to Rob in March of 2002. He had recently moved from Seattle, Washington to be closer to his wife’s family. He came to our residents’ clinic because he was having some difficulty with intermittent foot drop and leg weakness. He told me he was a painter and had some problems executing the fine strokes on the canvas. My resident questioned him at length, which Rob answered very patiently for he realized the resident was just doing his job being thorough. I went in to see him with the resident and extensively questioned him again.

Rob patiently answered all the questions. True to our physicians’ hats that we were wearing, we continued the detailed history taking. We probably embarrassed him with some questions about his personal life, but he in his most professional way answered them all. His wife, a pillar of strength but radiating compassion stood by his side at every visit. Following the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes (whom Rob admired and compared us to), we replaced our physician hats with detective hats, the Sherlock Holmes hat as Rob put it, and embarked on the path of diagnostic testing.

Within a few weeks, we had our answer. While Rob was in the neurology lab after an extensive and painful EMG testing, he was given the verdict. Our presumptions were true. He was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Being highly educated Rob knew what that meant. His eyes spoke volumes that day, but they still had the confidence, the pride, the same that was reflected in “that obnoxious bird”. My resident did an excellent job of being a true compassionate physician and friend to both Rob and his wife. Rob chose in his true sense of self-pride and strength that he derived from his faith, that he wanted to just stay home and be comfortable. He knew the natural course of the disease.

I got to learn more about Rob by talking to him, his wife, my resident and through his pastor. Rob was an excellent chess player and was known internationally. He was an expressive painter. Rob and I had shared stories about the game of chess. Rob was also an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes. We talked about how my husband and son had these common interests.

Rob continued to get weak and required a wheelchair. I had the privilege of visiting Rob at home in the end of June. I took my son to see Rob that evening. The peace, the calm, the hospitality that both Rob and his wife shared with us was amazing and very palpable. I got to see Rob’s work, the history behind his paintings. He was still able to paint and was working on a portrait of his niece.

He sat in his wheelchair proud, with a sense of fulfillment. He talked to my son about his experiences with chess; he showed a very personal interest in his school activities and hobbies. He was a very positive role model. My son had the privilege of a game of chess with the great player. In that brief encounter both Rob and his wife made a lasting impression on my son and touched his life in a very positive way.

That is when he told me the story of “that obnoxious bird”, the Emu. What he was actually telling me was “I am proud, I will not give up, I will fight”. That was the true spirit of Rob Rittenhouse. A few days later, I was informed of his peaceful death while painting.

So today as I look at the picture of the Emu that hangs in my office, this is what I see. I see a very accomplished, a very compassionate, a very strong, a very proud, a true wonderful human being who taught me in those few months the true humanism of medicine. The beauty of life, the satisfaction of giving, the power of faith and prayer: he taught me things that are not written in the textbooks of medicine.

I am constantly reminded of Rob’s analogy about life being like a game of chess. It reminds me of the main reason I chose medicine as a career. I relate this story to all my students and residents in training. Our patients are our best teachers, not only of medicine but also of life.
~ Mukta Panda MD
. University of Tennessee, College of Medicine-Chattanooga Unit

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