Patients who pass quickly once they have given up on life

As a doctor, I have never really believed in any type of significant mind-body connection. Of course stress is related to depression or even heart disease. But I never really thought that we as humans were capable of controlling our bodies responses to disease.  I don’t think I’ll ever believe that it is possible to heal yourself from a serious disease like cancer from thoughts.

But recently, I have had a few experiences with patients that show that our mind can control our bodies much deeper than I realized. These experiences have been just too numerous to be coincidental.

Last week I admitted a 88-year old lady for the 8th time this year. She was one of my favorite patients of all time. A person I consider a friend. She had lived  a hard life and had many medical problems. I would admit her to the hospital time and time for different medical problems. But she would always fight back and go home with her daughter. Last week was different. I saw her in clinic and she was white as a sheet. She was not breathing very well and the moment I walked into the clinic room I could tell immediately that she needed to go to the ER. I sent her up right away and went there immediately when my clinic was over. As I walked into the ER the ER doctor recognized me as her doctor and pulled me aside. “She has lung cancer.” he said in a bleakly. “There is a really large mass on her chest X-ray”. Before I had come into the ER I had reviewed her chart and had noted that the last time I admitted her to the hospital 3 months earlier she had a normal chest x-ray (no signs of cancer at all). I admitted her to the hospital that night and let her daughter know. We both agreed to let her rest and tell her the next morning.

That next morning She was doing fine, but I did what needed to be done and told her she had lung cancer. It was horrible. I could see the spirit deflate out of her, like a balloon in the dry heat. She had given up the moment I told her. And she died not 9 hours later. A lady who had lived through much worse had just given up and went Gently Into That Good Night. She isn’t the only one I’ve witnessed like this. I’ve had multiple patients who pass quickly once they have given up on life. It is the ultimate mind-body connection.

Arsheeya Mashaw is a geriatrician who blogs at A Doctors Guide to Healthy Aging.

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  • southerndoc1

    A geriatrician who says “pass” instead of “die.” Interesting.

    • James deMaine

      It implies passing into the next existence, whatever you believe it to be. Personally I kind of like the term as it seems to be a “nice euphemism” for “he’s dead” or “she’s gone”. It’s cultural, religious and probably regional as well. I commonly heard it from African-American patients and from Southerners that a loved on had “passed”. Anyone else have a take on the term “passing”? Whatever we call it, we do need to talk about death. See

      • militarymedical

        I dislike euphemisms, especially regarding medical and life topics. Cancer is cancer, not “the big C,” and death is death, not “passing.” Hard truths must be faced head on. The only ones who get a pass (pardon the pun) are children – who need to be told what is going on in terms appropriate to their ages. Even for them, “passing” can be a confusing term.

        • Karen Grant

          Oh, for cryin’ out loud, it’s a matter of dialect. In some parts of the United States, “pass” IS the generally-used and generally-understood term for dying. Sheesh.

          • militarymedical

            If you’re refering to the South, then I disagree that it’s a matter of “dialect.” I was partially raised and went to undergrad in the South, and currently live in WV, so am not ignorant of the region or its speech patterns. “Passing” is spoken aloud, while “dying” is whispered. That’s more than simple dialect at work.

          • maizenbluedoc

            I think the term pass is synonymus with the soul passing from the body to wherever.

    • DrMash

      Well I did say die too earlier in the story.

    • Operation_Granny

      One can use any words that are comfortable for one’s self and one’s audience – so long as the meaning is understood.

  • Dike Drummond MD

    Dr. Mashaw … I am sure hoping you will rise above the pure science of your training to realize the mind body connection in ALL things. It is just as powerful on the upside – with positive and health enhancing effects – as you describe here on the downside.

    Once you realize this … you can begin to help the patients in whole new ways besides, potions, pills and scalpels. There is a MASSIVE world of methods for you to be a much more effective doctor once you admit that standard western allopathic medicine is NOT the only way to help your patients.

    Dike Drummond MD

    • DrMash

      Thanks, I’m getting there, but slowly.

  • Finnan Haddie

    A very old woman with so many medical problems that she’s had to be hospitalized on average every 6-7 weeks for the past year then developed a lung cancer so aggressive that it grew into “a really large mass” in only 3 months, after which she died, and you attribute her death to her mind? Seriously? The first thing you should have learned in any science class is that correlation is not causation. Did you expect her to live forever? You shoul dalso have learned that that doesn’t happen.

    • DrMash

      Sure man, the point of the story is not that she was going to die. But how quickly she died after she found out she had cancer.

  • Jonathan Aluzas

    There will probably never be scientific proof of the connection of the mind and spirit with the body, but I think most of us have seen it at one time or another, or have felt it.

  • SarahJ89

    When I was growing up people weren’t told they had terminal cancer. Now *everyone* is told. Perhaps we could use a bit of tempering. I’m curious as to whether you asked her daughter if it was even a good idea to tell this patient. I say this because I’ve seen this happen with other people. They’re not well, but still in the game, but they fold up like a cheap suit once they’re told they have massive cancer.

    I wouldn’t want to go back to the old days, but I’m not convinced this newer approach isn’t just as mindless.

  • lauramitchellrn

    I’ve seen patients hang on as well. The one I remember most vividly seemed to be waiting for something or someone. Her granddaughter (who had been in another state) finally got there and visited her grandmother. About 30 minutes after the granddaughter left, the patient passed away.

  • dualthreat

    For those not yet convinced of the physical/mental connection: Sounds like you’re ripe for a viewing of the 2004 breakthrough quantum physics-mysticism film, “What the Bleep Do We Know.” Recommended to me by a doctor, by the way.

  • Operation_Granny

    I’ve been fighting to get an accurate dx of what I suspect is an occult infection for a year. I understand the mind – body connection and plan to remind my docs of same. Thank you!

  • Dave James

    Physicians who do not witness and feel the wonder and spirit of those we have the honor to treat—aren’t paying attention or haven’t been in the field long enough. Living and death is not all science unless one wishes to consider it only a chemical reaction of the brain. Hold your child or hug your parents and be scientific but don’t belittle us who feel and realize humanness. Thanks for spotlighting that Dr. Mash aw.

  • Edwina Owens Elliott

    I’ve always believed that my father checked himself out when he died. He never wanted to go into a nursing home. But when my brother felt it was time he had our father admitted. It was on a Thursday evening. I arrived in town on Saturday and spent the day with him. He was miserable. Said he felt like nothing. By Sunday he’d slipped into a coma. And Monday morning he was gone. He was there for three days. That was enough for him.

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