Last evening I crumbled in the arms of my patient and wept. This was unknown territory to me, an unexpected role reversal. For three weeks after my Mom’s death, I maintained a stoic distance as patients offered their condolences, as they asked about my mother, and empathized. We doctors have been trained to do this, to face death, to keep our emotions at arm’s length. But this patient, who has faced so many tragedies herself, recognized the emptiness and loss I was experiencing. She held me and let my tears flow. I was embarrassed. Never in 30 years have I lost my composure before a patient. But I, too, need to grieve, and grief creeps up on you unexpectedly when looking at an X-ray or glancing at a sunset.
In the last month, I was traumatized by the violence of the ICU. As doctors, we move in the intensive care unit from task to task, with numbers on charts, small gains, and defeats every day. But here was my beloved mother in the ICU.
A strong independent woman, stylish, an icon for so many, was reduced to a tangle of wires and tubes, beeping monitors, and shrill alarms. Shorn of her lipstick, we tried to hang on to her dignity. Ultimately she passed away, not slipping into the night, but in an agonizing, ferocious upheaval.
Two months ago, Queen Elizabeth peacefully passed away at her Scotland castle. Many scoffed at her death certificate, which stated merely old age. Old age could be a diagnosis against which we can battle with all our sophisticated equipment and medications, but old age still robs our organs and ability to fight a minor ailment. In my mother’s case, she had a perfectly functioning heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver. She came into the hospital with a fractured arm; one by one, old age stripped her of her organs, vitality, and life.
She went not the way she would have wanted.
Doctors and nurses were battling to save a patient in the nearby cubicle. Cardiac compressions, electric shocks, shouted instructions, noise, clamor.
We gathered around our mother and whispered our tearful goodbyes, telling her not to be afraid and that what was to come was beautiful. But how did we know any of that?
It calmed me, the platitudes I am trained to say, helping me ease my mother’s journey.
And now I sit in my white coat. At my desk. Grieving. Patients wait outside. But I am taking a few moments for myself when it feels like my heart will overflow and the pain is endless.
Humeira Badsha is a rheumatologist.
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