I walk out of a room filled with emotion and despair. A battle lost but the war rages on. I’ve seen miracles, often only a daily basis. Life is precious but peculiarly fragile while resilient and strong. Every emergency provider understands the feeling after a patient has passed. It’s the unexplainable reverence and daunting silence as I put on the white coat. It’s the echoing footsteps that never go away on my path to the consultation room. It’s the faces that we never forget as we have to deliver the news of a passing loved one. As doctors and nurses, we must inform family and loved ones of untimely deaths and or an anticipated passing. These moments etch eternal impressions and memories on the hearts of families and healthcare providers.
In training, I was instructed to keep these conversations “short and impersonal.” It was almost a scripted event based on anticipated reactions and emotions. Patient care 101 says, “Never say you’re sorry for your loss.” If a doctor does this, the family could misinterpret it as “all was not done or improper care was administered. “ I have to admit that this was part of my practice in early years. I kept it professional, and kept on my white coat.
Somewhere through my journey, I took off the white coat. Maybe it was the birth of my children or loss of my grandmother that made the difference. Somewhere on my journey, I took off the coat and held the family members hand and felt tears of my own. Every loss I can see the face of my child. Every passing I understood and hurt for his or her loss. Empathy is universal, transcending words or expressions. Empathy is essential in health care. It’s a component that can’t be taught or scripted but must be present. Patient care goes well beyond the IVs and drips. It goes beyond the last heartbeat.
As I walk home, leaving the ER after an exhausting night, the battle wages on. I put on my other coat; the one I wear when I hug my kids, go to ballgames, and attend my local church. In this coat, I throw balls and read bedtime stories. In this coat, I encourage my friends and grieve for their loss. It was wearing this coat that I became a physician.
Jeffrey McWilliams is an emergency physician who blogs at Advocates Of Excellence.
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