REMEMBER THE TELEVISION show Quantum Leap? I was fasci-nated by it as a teenager. In every episode, the main character, a physicist, leaped back in time and into someone else’s body and fixed something that had gone wrong in their lives. The idea of being able to make things right from the past stuck with me well into adulthood. Until fairly recently, in fact.
May 1, 2020. I’d seen my share of death and suffering in the two weeks I’d been deployed as an Army social worker at New York City’s Jacobi Medical Center. The Covid-19 crisis was unrelenting. My job was to sit with patients, a dozen or so visits a day, and listen. Offer comfort and hope. But was it too late for George Crouch, the frail elderly man in the bed in front of me?
Nurses told me he’d refused medical care and food since he’d lost his wife, Gail, to Covid-19 the day before. I sat next to his bed, outfitted in my PPE. His eyes were barely open, a solitary tear on his cheek. He was 96, a World War II veteran. One of the Greatest Generation.
“Sir, I’m Capt. Eric Dungan,” I said. “U.S. Army.” His eyes opened a crack. “I’m in the Reserves, not the Big Army like you.” An almost imperceptible smile creased his lips. Something, at least.
I’d spent years as a social worker, but this deployment was my first time in uniform. I’d joined the Reserves only six months earlier. My respect for veterans was a big part of why I’d signed up. My father, Jack, was a veteran of the Korean War era. I only wished he could have lived to see me in uniform, but he’d died in 2013.
I fixed my eyes on George’s. “You know what it’s like to battle,” I said. “You’ve got to stay strong.”
I talked for a few more minutes. No response. Finally, I stood, my six-foot, five-inch frame towering over him. I was almost to the door when I heard it.
“Rock steady.” The voice weak, the words unmistakable.
I turned. George looked as if he were asleep. His words echoed in my mind. Something my old man would have said. The same quiet strength.
I went back to see George that afternoon. The room was a hive of activity. “We’re taking him to an area where he can get more care,” a nurse said.
“Rock steady,” I said.
George slowly made a fist and gave a thumbs-up as they wheeled him out.
I WAS OFF THAT WEEKEND. ALL I did was worry about George. I cared about each of my patients, prayed for them each morning. Something about this guy tugged at me, though. It wasn’t just the way he reminded me of my dad. It felt almost as if I were being given a chance to atone for the mistakes of my youth, to make things right.
From the time I could walk, I was in awe of my dad. He was the salt of the earth. He’d served in an infantry unit in the Army. He’d worked on the assembly line at GM and done construction on the side. But he always made time for my older sister and brother and me. From helping people who were down on their luck to teaching me how to hit a jump shot, he was all-in.
Like when I was 15 and broke my leg playing basketball. I had a rod put in and was laid up for weeks. Dad sat with me every evening, boosting my spirits.
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