What happens to patients after their doctors die?

Several studies have explored the experience of grief that physicians feel when they lose a patient. But what about when the patient loses a physician — when the doctor dies?

Dr. K was a well-known child psychiatrist, a loving husband, a father of two, and an irreplaceable support and friend for a number of children suffering from trauma, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and other challenging psychiatric conditions. Earlier this year, Dr. K passed away in a tragic accident while vacationing with his family. His loss was nearly unbearable for most of us.

Days after the funeral, a colleague of Dr. K inquired into whose care his patients would be transferred. She was shocked to hear that one of his patients, a young teenager suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety, and depression, had overdosed on his medication and committed suicide the day he heard of Dr. K’s death. It was no coincidence.

Behind the family members, close friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are the physician’s patients. They are part of a separate, almost secret life that the physician leads. And yet, the patient is whom the physician spends more time with than anyone else — they are in some ways the truest reflection of the doctor. While family and others grieve together in collective remembrance, patients often do so isolated, alone, confidential.

There is no data on patient experiences with physician death, perhaps because it is not quite as common as the reverse scenario. But physicians are people and they die in all kinds of ways, some naturally and others unexpectedly. The bond between the patient and physician is hard to measure and understand, but in Dr. K’s death, we all understood it a little more. When you lose someone who was fighting for your life, you essentially lose a part of yourself.

Managing the care of patients who have lost their physician is an important topic that deserves attention. Particularly for those who form strong emotional bonds with their physicians, such as psychiatric patients, attempting to cope with such an immense tragedy without proper support can be extremely debilitating and in some cases, even life-threatening. In many ways, this alludes to the reality that medicine is less a job than a relationship, less about medications and procedures than about life, love and humanism. We miss you Dr. K — your family, your friends, your colleagues, and your patients.

Abraar Karan is a medical student who blogs at Swasthya Mundial. This article originally appeared on The Health Care Blog.

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  • Kristy Sokoloski

    My condolences to Dr. K’s family, friends, and all in the community that knew this doctor on such a personal level.

    • Abraar Karan

      Thank you Kristy

  • Anthony D

    I never experienced a loss of a doctor due to death. I hope that doesn’t happen!

  • Sue

    My doctor of nearly 20 years died this month. He was one of those special people who don’t come along often in life, one of the best and brightest, both in terms of intellect and caring. Patients do mourn alone. I felt bereft and thought I was crazy until I found some of his other patients to talk to. (He was famous worldwide in his specialties, so we connected via online obit websites.) It’s helpful to have that connection. We’re planning to work together to start a memorial in his name. From what I hear, it was also helpful to his family to hear our thoughts and receive our condolences (again through the online obit website.)

    • Abraar Karan

      Thanks for sharing this Sue. Wishing you all the best.

  • Suzi Q 38

    I think that a physician, dying so abruptly would be doubly difficult to cope with.
    My neurologist teases me whenever he sees me: “Suzi, come back to see me next year as long as you are feeling good and do not have more adverse symptoms…..if I am still here.”

    When I tell him NOT to talk like that, he calmly smiles and says…yes, but I mean it, I might be dead.” LOL.

    He may have some “insider” information, and I also have to consider that he is 80 and still working because he is excellent at what he does and we all want and need him.

    Anyone of us could die tomorrow.

    I just looked at him and said: “Have a nice year doctor. I am glad that you are my doctor and taking good care of me. See you next year.”

  • meyati

    When I was 13, our family doctor called us in to say good bye. He did that with every patient he could contact. He had been taking care of me since I was 2. He assured us that in some form that he’d always be with us. He arranged for one his friends to come down from Beverly Hills and take care of his patients, who were mostly braceros and maids. So we sat next to movie stars wrapped in furs.

    On that last visit, he gathered his strength in a last ditch effort to get through to my abusive mother, and told her that she wasn’t fit to have any children, and he had filed complaints with children’s services. My father had passed from the same cancer a year earlier.

    The new doctor drove up in his big Caddy and did welfare checks on us. Apparently, in an age of no privacy-he checked attendance records-and whenever my brother or I missed over a week of school, he came to see if we were dead or alive. My mother screamed that she couldn’t afford the bills, he said that he wasn’t charging anything, he was keeping a promise.

    If there are doctors like that anymore-I surely haven’t met them.