By Samantha Jackson

The sharp scratch of pencil lead sprinting across thick layers of paper. Rapid rustles of flipping pages. The neurotic tapping of pens on hard wooden desks. These are all sounds that I grew very accustomed to hearing during my junior year of high school.

Attending a medically-oriented magnet school was not easy. With rigorous courses and fierce competition, I had to work harder than ever before to maintain my grades and still get at least four hours of sleep every night. But, my school exposed me to the medical field in a way not many other schools could, and it also provided me with experiences that changed my entire outlook on life.

During my junior year, I did clinical rotations that allowed me to serve in several units at two different hospitals. There, I got to truly see — uncensored — the life of a medical professional, and it was during these rotations that I met someone who truly changed my life.

That year of high school was a challenging one. I had just ended my first “serious” relationship, was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and wasn’t speaking to my best friend of six years (although we made up a few months later and are still very close today). Looking back now, all of these problems seem so silly, but at the time they were the hardest things I had ever had to deal with. I was at, what I believed to be, the lowest point in my life when my teacher placed me in the Community Living Center for my next rotation.

The CLC at the Audie Lee Murphy Hospital is a hospice unit where they care for the elderly and try to make them as comfortable as possible until it is time to pass on. I was already despondent because of all my high school problems, so this was not my idea of a good time.

Sitting at the nurse’s station for two hours straight on the very first day, the tenor of encroaching death was pungent in the air and weighing heavily upon my shoulders. I had been instructed to introduce myself to the patients, so I started with the first room and began to work my way down the long and dimly lit hallway. Most of the patients in the unit didn’t acknowledge me, and for that, I was grateful. It wasn’t until I had gotten to the last room, that I even got a response.

As I introduced myself, I tried to sound cheery but the words were rushed because I was in a hurry to return to my seat at the nurse’s station. But as I turned to leave, a pair of icy blue eyes met mine and a scratchy voice began to speak.

I was caught off guard when he offered a genuine smile and asked me how my day had been so far. As soon as I would answer one question, another would follow, and he seemed so sincerely interested in my life that I found myself opening up and responding with questions of my own. When the nurse came to tell me it was time to leave, we were deep in conversation about the period of his life in which he spent an entire year traveling the world.

Every day after that, I would go straight to the last room on the left side of the long hallway, take a seat in the chair next to his bed and talk about anything and everything. He gave me advice and taught me things that I will remember for the rest of my life. Soon I was able to talk to him better than I could to my own best friends.

The day before I left for my winter holiday, he told me that he was excited because they were finally going to let him leave and spend Christmas with his grandchildren. He had only met them once, so his wife was going to pick him up a few days early, so he could choose the perfect gifts for them. His enthusiasm made me laugh. I wished him the best and told him that I would see him in two weeks, before parting ways.

The weeks passed slowly, and by the time the break was over I was looking forward to visiting him and hearing about his time with his family. But when I opened the door to his room, I was surprised to find it completely bare. The picture frames and childlike drawings that had once littered his walls were gone, and his usually messy bed was far too neat. The room looked like it had never been inhabited to begin with.

I immediately backed into the hallway and asked the closest nurse what happened to my friend, only to get a sorrowful look as she told me that he had passed away at home several days after Christmas.  

I was overcome with a kind of sadness that I had never experienced before. He was the one who had helped me make it through most of that year. He helped me break out of my slump and overcome the pressures of everyday life.

Even though we only knew each other for a couple of months, he left a big impression on my life. I remember he once told me, “Never before have I met a stranger,” and that is something that has stayed with me ever since. Before I met Mr. Saenz, I lacked any kind of compassion or empathy for those around me, but he turned that around. He taught me to care about everyone I meet, and he showed me that they all have a purpose in my life.