I Thought I’d Killed Betty

Creative Nonfiction
David Thow

Tandem skydivers silhouetted under a bright yellow parachute against a pale blue sky with horizontal streaks of fluffy clouds. The passenger has arms and legs raised/extended in a star shape.

Photo Credit: grasshoppergirl/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Betty, a silver-haired septuagenarian, jumped from an airplane.

From its conception, I was never fully on board with Betty’s latest thrill-seeking lark because I knew one thing for certain: leaping out of anything from 10,000 feet wasn’t going to help her pesky high blood pressure problem. If I was ever going to put on my family doctor’s hat and ground this zip-lining, Harley-racing motorcycle mama, that would’ve been the time.

Her blood pressure had niggled at me for awhile. She saw the specialist, got thrown on the pills, ate right, got in a solid eight hours and had the lab work of a healthy teenager. But dang, if I couldn’t make a dent in those stubborn numbers. Her arteries must have been like lead pipes—no give.

Stick to gardening like a normal grandmother of twelve, Betty. But Betty could be persuasively insistent.

Yes Betty, I know you skied Whistler last winter and walked away without a scratch but you could’ve just as easily broken your neck, and yes, you did complete the marathon faster than many half your age but that’s on land that you’re not hurtling towards, and yes, thank you again for the butter tarts, but Betty, we’re talking skydiving here!

I feel great, stop your worrying.

Betty’s office appointments had become more of a social visit than anything else. It was easy to get swept up in stories from her nomadic years of travel and adventure. She’d explain the meanings behind her various tattoos.

Occasionally, she’d bring in a few blood pressure readings done on the pharmacy’s machine. I’d wince and sound an alarm.

She said this would be it; afterwards she promised to retire to her petunias and only half-marathons.

I signed off on the medical clearance form.


The next time I saw Betty, the day after the jump, she was horizontal on a gurney in the emergency room.

Apparently, the dive itself went off without a hitch. That evening, she had her customary glass of red wine followed by a celebratory family dinner at her daughter’s and then home to bed.

It wasn’t until the next morning in front of the bathroom mirror when Betty realized something was wrong with her face. That’s what her file said she told the 911 operator right before things went south. The paramedics arrived to save her life but not soon enough to prevent further damage.

Betty lay motionless. Her mouth drooped on one side. Her paralytic contralateral arm and leg were stiff and unnaturally positioned. Her head was tilted to the left, her eyes fixed up and outwardly. She was not able to speak. If it wasn’t for her chest rising up and down with each shallow breath, I’d have thought Betty wasn’t with us anymore.

I moved into her line of vision. She lurched forward, then fell back. Scared the heck out of me. What did that mean?  Was she trying to strangle me like I might have tried in her situation. It happened again with the same result.

I left the hospital knowing I’d made a very bad mistake. Betty chose me to be on the lookout for precisely this type of threatening situation and to guide her back to safety. It’s implicit in the doctor-patient relationship. I’d been remiss in that obligation.


I was buoyed, somewhat, on a return trip to the hospital a couple of weeks later. In relative terms, Betty’s condition showed marked improvement.

When I walked into the room, she was sitting on the side of the bed facing the door, legs dangling down. Through pale blue eyes, she studied me with uncertainty. She couldn’t immediately place my face. The stroke must have really done a number on her cerebral cortex. Then she slid herself off the bed and stood up.  She was a little wonky but managed to steady herself without aid.

I remember you, she said in a garbled voice like she had a hot potato in her mouth.

It’s nice to see you up and about.

Up and about, she echoed.

Physiotherapy seems to be going well.

Going well, she repeated.

I wondered how much she was absorbing, but I had come to say something.

Betty, I should’ve done more to prevent this. It’s my fault. I’d understand if you want another family doctor when you get out of here.

Betty gave a knowing nod. Then she shook her head, No blame. You’re my doctor, and also my friend.

I got choked up. I’m not sure who’s helping who.

Maybe we help each other.

One more word out of you Betty and I’m going to start crying like a baby.

The nurse arrived to gather her for a therapy session.

Crying like a baby, Betty repeated, as she shuffled past and out the room. Her cane, reduced to a mere ornament, hung forgotten on the door handle.

On my way to the elevator, I bumped into Betty’s neurologist. She’s come a long way in a short period, he said. She refuses to accept the limitations of her condition. She has an amazing will to live.

As I continued down the hallway, I came to a decision. I had to stop feeling like I’d killed Betty. She hadn’t died. She was still my patient and I still had a job to do.

If Betty wasn’t going to give up, then neither should I.



This memory from twenty years ago was prompted upon learning of Betty’s recent passing.

Two years after these events, I relocated my practice. It was not feasible for Betty to follow. She came under the care of a colleague.

I’m told she had the finest garden in her neighbourhood.


David Thow was born in Winnipeg and educated at the University of Manitoba. He lives in Toronto where he practices medicine. Email: david_thow2018[at]yahoo.com

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