Doctors are not unbiased; we do have favorite patients. There are some people who make you smile when you see them on your schedule. You try not to treat anyone differently from a medical perspective, but there are just some people you feel glad to know.
One of my favorite patients is dying right now.
She has been my patient for nearly the entire time I have practiced. She and her husband have been regulars in my office, and it has been an absolute privilege to be their doctor. I would do it for free. Really. They both grin when I walk into the room, with him usually giving a silly chuckle. She would stand up and open her arms for a hug, which she always got.
She is in her 80′s and is an African-American who has lived in the South for her entire life. I never asked her what it was like, but when I asked her what she thought about a black man being a candidate for president she paused, teared up a little, and told me it was wonderful. I can only imagine.
My nurses commented how, despite her age, she was a beautiful woman. She carried herself with incredible class and dignity, yet was quick to laugh at my jokes (which is no small feat in and of itself). She and her husband had worked hard to raise their family right, and whenever I talked with their children it was clear that the work paid off. All of their kids are college-educated and are carrying on the incredible legacy of their parents.
Yesterday I got a phone call from the cardiologist who took care of her, telling me how she had gone downhill quickly and that she was now in hospice. It was clear that he felt the same way I do about this woman and her family. “When the family walked on the ward, all of the hospital staff knew that they were something really special,” he told me. We shared with each other what incredible respect and affection we had for her and her husband.
As a doctor there is a necessary line you have to draw. You cannot become too emotionally involved or invested in your patients; if you do, you will not last long. There is too much suffering and death you will inevitably see for you to not set up significant boundaries in this area. My job is not to keep my patients alive forever; it is to walk alongside of them through the physical and emotional trials they endure, making the journey as healthy and comfortable as possible. Each year I practice I will lose a certain number of patients – some expected, some not.
This situation blurs that line. I am very sad to be losing such a wonderful part of my life. My heart is heavier than usual. But even now I remain guarded. I have to carry on with my job, see other patients, and continue being father and husband. Still I will do what I can to make it to her funeral (I have only done that a handful of times). I owe her that respect.
Her impact is huge. The world is a much better place for her and her husband being here. My life is much better.
Thank you. It has been an incredibly honor.
If only I could get one more hug.This material, written by me, is free to re-post and share under the Creative Commons agreement. In other words, use it all you want; just give me credit.