I was a work today and I was given this message, “ —–’s husband called and wants you to call back right away! He sounded very upset. His wife died.”
Uh oh, I thought to myself, this is never good. It was a patient I remembered well, that I had seen repeatedly for a chronic problem, and who always came with her husband. We seemed to get along well. I didn’t recall any conflict, unpleasant interactions or any immediate life threat that might have been ominous. There were no complaints to administration. I looked in the computer, and I hadn’t seen this patient in over 3 months. I debated whether or not to call back, not knowing what beehive I would be getting into. Did I do something wrong? Am I being sued? Surely I am going to be blamed for this in some way? Maybe returning this call would not be such a good idea.
I decided to call back. After all, I knew the curiosity of not knowing what happened would torture me more than simply calling and facing whatever was coming my way. I had a few extra minutes, so I dialed the phone and called.
“Hello,” answered the familiar voice of Mrs. —-‘s husband.
“Hi, this is Dr. Bird. I got a message that you had called. I’m sorry about the terrible news,” I said.
“Yes, she died 2 weeks ago,” he said, his voice crackling and wavering. “I thought you would want to know.”
“Yes, absolutely, thank you for calling. Again, I’m very sorry about your loss,” I said.
“What happened?” I was afraid to hear the answer.
He went on to explain that 3 months after I had last seen his wife, her condition began to deteriorate (from something unrelated to what I saw her for). He paused and choked up repeatedly in telling the story, the tears and emotions still raw. She ended up in the ICU and on life support. Her condition worsened, beyond any hope. To respect her wishes, he decided to withdraw support, as she requested. As a result, she died. This concluded many long and painful years of an excruciatingly painful illness. Nevertheless, he was crushed.
“She was a very strong woman and she went through a lot,” I said. “I’m sure you miss her very, very much.”
“Yes, I do,” he said. I could hear him now choking back full tears. “Most of all, I wanted to call and tell you thanks, for all you did trying to help her. I want you to know she thought the world of you.”
Wow. That was a shocker. After all the years of hurried patient interactions, the long nights, the grinding day shifts, and the routine ins and outs, unexpectedly, this one stopped me in my tracks. I have to admit, he got me. I was totally caught off guard, by the appreciation in the face of such a hurtful tragic loss. I had come to expect utter negativity and a lack of appreciation at all turns.
“Wow, sir. Thank you. Thank you for calling. I really appreciate you letting me know,” I said, in disbelief, and humbled. After years of being a doctor in various setting, with 30,000 or more patient interactions and counting, I can honestly count the number of times I have received this type of thanks on one hand. At least for the moment, this one “thank you” seemed to have made up for many thanks that likely were felt, yet not necessarily sent or expressed, and likely drowned by a much noisier negativity more demanding of being heard.
So, I left work today with my faith in humanity reinstilled just a little bit, at least for today. I drove home just a little bit more convinced that maybe all the hassles, frustrations, and stresses I deal with as a doctor amongst the choking cloud of red tape, administrative fiats, government rules and meaningless “meaningful use,” that what I do just might be making a difference, somewhere, someway, somehow, to someone.
“BirdStrike” is an emergency physician who blogs at Dr. Whitecoat.