In family medicine residency back in the early 2000s, we had a then-novel curriculum in narrative medicine. During inpatient rounds, we would sometimes get a few minutes to write down our thoughts about a patient’s experience. I remember how cathartic even refreshing at times that felt, to write my feelings about my first patient on the wards with severe heart failure or that sweet toddler I had to put an IV in at 3 a.m., so blown up on steroids, singing as I tried to secure her chubby foot, rather than H&Ps and scut lists with checkboxes.
It’s those desperate, often dying patients who rattled me and pushed me to write as a resident, to try to make sense of this practice of medicine, this science that is more an art form when done by the masters.
One of those masters was Dr. Helen Muhlbauer, our residency community hospital’s C/L (consult liaison) psychiatrist. Clad in a blazer, accessorized with a fanny pack and hair tied back in a messy ponytail, she was a veritable diamond in the rough. She was an expert interviewer, with a quick wit yet soothing manner that could calm down the most agitated of patients and get to the heart of the matter. She was also such a knowledgeable clinician, even able to tease out those obscure causes of delirium. She cared deeply for everyone; she advocated for her patients, her fellow physicians, and all the hospital staff. She was good friends with the hospital cafeteria and cleaning staff, wishing shalom to everyone she passed by.
After residency, I reconnected with Helen on Facebook. She was an avid poster and commenter. How funny how I last saw her in person in 2006, yet I felt close to her through her constant Facebook presence. She kept in touch with all the past residents, sending birthday wishes of “[may you live] to 120” and lauding our accomplishments and family milestones. She frequently spoke out about politics and health care policy/economic issues.
As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, she vehemently called out acts of anti-Semitism as well. I would see her posts on her own page or on the Physician Moms Group (PMG) on Facebook at least weekly.
And so, it was shocking to hear that Helen passed away recently. I had seen a Facebook post from her only a few days prior. In this social media age, how easily you can hide your true self, your physical and mental condition, your pain, behind news article shares. As one so adept at breaking down walls and seeing through the facades of others, Helen knew very well how to shield herself.
Physicians die too; we sadly all know too well these days. But just like that naive intern thinking you can save all your patients, you don’t want to believe you’ve lost one of your mentors. Over the years, Helen taught and impacted at least 100 of us family physicians. I like to think we each carry on a little bit of her legacy through our practices. A rare gem, a master physician artist, can I take just a piece of her stone and make it part of my mosaic of medical practice? This is the humanity of medicine that no EMR, no telemedicine technology, no metric can replace or repress or quantify. Let’s invest in each other, in our narratives, in our art, in our lives.
Jaime B. Gerber is a geriatrician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com