It’s scary when our loved ones have surgery

Recently, after a fairly long day of surgery where everything was going well, I was finishing my fourth case.  It was about 2pm on a Friday, and we were running on schedule, which made me happy.

As I walked out to the waiting area in search of the family of the elderly woman on whom I had performed an elective procedure, I noticed her husband sitting in the corner.  He stood up and walked toward me.  I immediately smiled, held out my hand, and let him know everything had gone very well.

His whole posture was tight and constricted.  He had a frown on his face the entire time.  Despite my smiling and reassuring him, he barely nodded in response.

“Everything went well,” I said.  “She lost very little blood.  I’m very pleased with how everything went.”

Yet, he continued to grimace.

I tried to determine why he might be angry.  We were not running late, so it couldn’t be that.  We were finishing at a reasonable time for him to get his wife home before the rush-hour traffic began, so that wasn’t it.

I continued to say a few more words, searching his face for the answer.

And then, it came to me.

He took a deep breath and tears welled up in his eyes.  Then, he let his breath out, very slowly.

And, suddenly, it hit me.

Oh, how dumb of me.  He wasn’t angry with me.  He was worried about his wife of 43 years the whole time I had been in the operating room.  He could not let his guard down or relax until he had totally registered that all was well.

Duh.

It wasn’t about me.  Or any delay in our schedule.  Or the traffic.

His reaction was about his deep love for his wife, and his fear of her having surgery.

In my mind, it was a very straightforward procedure that I had done hundreds of times.  To him, it was a major event.

I touched his shoulder and said, “May I give you a hug?”

He melted into my hug, this big burly older fellow.  I hugged him hard and said softly in his ear, so others in the waiting area wouldn’t hear, “It’s scary when our loved ones have surgery, isn’t it?”

That’s all he needed.

He finally nodded and a slow smile came upon his face.

He needed to know his wife was fine and her procedure was behind her.

He needed to be certain all was well.

Only then could he relax and hear what I had been saying.

It wasn’t about me at all.

Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist who blogs at Love Medicine Again.

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  • Pam Pappas MD

    Thanks for sharing this very moving story, Dr. Fitch. You show how an ophthalmologist can suddenly see with new eyes. :-) Blessings on your skillful hands, wise mind, and open heart!

  • Dr. Anna Garrett

    Great article Starla! A wonderful reminder that just “being” with someone can make all the difference in how they experience things.

  • Starla Fitch MD

    Susan Mathison, MD, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy world to add such wisdom! In our training in medical school, there were days when the “nuts and bolts” far outweighed the compassion part, for sure. Lots of us, fortunately, came into the medical arena with a boatload of compassion. My goal, with Love Medicine Again, is to help us keep that compassion alive. So glad you share that dream. Thanks!

  • Starla Fitch MD

    Glad Doggett, so true! My misinterpretation of my patient’s husband reaction is really not exclusive to medicine at all. Think of all the times when a spouse or a child does something weird or has a certain attitude – - and we think it is because we forgot to make the coffee or wash their favorite jeans. Later, we learn that maybe our husband had a rough day at work or our child didn’t make the soccer team . . .

  • Starla Fitch MD

    Monique Lusse, thank you for your thoughts. Excellent point about the man being vulnerable and yet brave, especially to a stranger, all to “be there” for his wife. Guess that’s what love is all about, isn’t it?

  • Starla Fitch MD

    Beth Miller, thanks so much for your kind words. And that is so true that compassion and love show up in ways that we don’t always expect. Like the parent getting angry at their child coming home late, when it may be the way they mask worry. Easier to see that, now that I’m a grown up!

  • Starla Fitch MD

    Dearest Guest, my heart goes out to that young doctor (you!) with so many duties on your plate and yet, you took the time to at least acknowledge the patient’s husband. Trust me that that meant a lot to him. What a beautiful spirit you have.

  • Starla Fitch MD

    Dr. Romie, thank you for your wisdom. And so true, that Love is the best medicine. And, some say to that: What if it doesn’t work? Then, increase the dose. :-)

  • Starla Fitch MD

    Catharine Enright, DDS, MS, thanks for the clarity on the use of “routine” procedures. It is so easy to be casual with something that has become routine for US. You are so right. It is Never routine for them. Often, patients will ask me, “Is this a ‘minor’ procedure?” My answer is always, “When it’s your procedure, then it’s major to You.”

  • Starla Fitch MD

    Kay Corpus, thanks so much for your kind words. It almost slipped by me, I’m afraid. And that’s really my message. We doctors get so busy with “getting it done” that we forget to look up, into the eyes of our patients and their families. Just lucked out that I noticed his tears.

  • Starla Fitch MD

    Dear Guest, thanks for this unique perspective! I love it! Even though so many things become routine for us, it is Not routine for our patients. Great analogy of the “show.” :-)

  • Clare

    You were quick to realize the situation, Dr. Starla! As a nurse, I was able to manage our children’s procedures, tonsillectomies, and broken bones.
    That is until our daughter underwent LASIK surgery for her astigmatism–her eyes–I was surprised I was so afraid for her and cried with relief when it was finished successfully

    • Starla Fitch MD

      Clare, thank you for reminding us that families of medical people are not immune to such concerns! In fact, we can often be accused of over-worrying. When my dad had tear duct surgery by my attending surgeon, I was sent out of the O.R., on a mission to respond to an emergency. Turns out, my attending surgeon had invented that emergency to keep me and my anxiety out of the O.R. until the case was over. :-)

  • AKMaineIac

    The only “routine surgery” is one someone else is having. I didn’t think that until my own appendectomy. And my words of wisdom would be don’t let your guard down until you’re released from the surgeon’s care and completely back to “normal”.

    Which, for me… was 13 weeks and fifty pounds less of me later. Words of wisdom for surgeon’s? When a patient says, “Something’s wrong.”… believe them and don’t stop with reasonable measures until you know nothing is wrong. More along the order of a year before I was as strong as before that stupidity.

    I’ve had patients say they were afraid, heading into procedures. I am a physical therapist, and I usually tell them that it’s okay to be concerned and normal to have some trepidation and fear. But to not hesitate to discuss it with their physician. But, the doctor would never consent to perform that procedure on them if they thought the risks outweighed the potential benefits. It is meant to improve their lives, or stop an ongoing decline, sometimes even prevent or forestall death itself.

    Good doctor listens to the patient and resolves their concerns, and we no longer only “treat the patient”, we’re consulting and treating with an entire family and the health care “team” to boot.

    • Starla Fitch MD

      AKMainelac, I love your comment about the only “routine surgery” is one someone else is having. I may borrow that when talking with my patients. And, you are 100% correct that the patient often can have a sense of something not quite right. As part of the medical team, I’m sure you have tuned in to your patients’ advice when their intuition or unusual ache told them that something was “off.” Thanks for your wise thoughts.

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