Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, and we all have sorrow.
But if we are wise, we know that there’s always a tomorrow.
Lean on me when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend; I’ll help you carry on,
for it won’t be long ’till I’m going to need somebody to lean on.
Some might recall these lyrics from the song Lean on Me, written in 1972 by American singer-songwriter Bill Withers. These simple words emphasize the profound interconnectedness of all human beings, reminding us that no one’s life is perfect, that inevitably there will be life’s hardships, and that we all need each other to survive and thrive.
It was a cold winter day in January, almost 12 years ago, when I suffered a heart attack at age 62 and was hospitalized. The cardiologist performed his job with great skill, and after a long and anxious week in the hospital, I was released to resume my life. But this life-threatening experience seemed to knock the air out of me like a pin piercing a balloon. All my assumptions of how my life was to unfold seemed to evaporate into thin air. More than my heart needed repair, my confidence and my trust in myself needed to be restored.
During my hospitalization, I was paired with a family med doctor whom I barely knew but who came highly recommended by a family member. This physician was warm and caring and was sincerely interested in my well-being. What struck me was that he was not only concerned about my physical recovery but also was there to help with the emotional aspect of having experienced a heart attack — a feeling that haunted me — that there was a ticking time bomb ready to go off with any slight twinge of pain I might feel. Simply put, he seemed to know and understand what I was going through.
As the weeks and months passed, my doctor was present to help in any way he could. He was a source of guidance for living my life in a healthier manner, but more importantly, he was there to instill within me a sense of confidence and belief in myself. Instead of thinking of myself as a victim of heart disease, I came to think of myself as a victor of the disease. I got into running local races: 5Ks, 5-milers, and 10-milers. On those Saturday race days, I would receive a phone call from my doctor asking how the race went. I guess he wanted to make sure I was still alive and kicking, and there were always words of congratulations. I felt his sense of pride in what I was accomplishing.
After almost two years following my heart attack, with several shorter races under my belt and with my doctor’s approval, I completed my first and only marathon, running 26.2 miles. I didn’t break any records that day, but it served as an important declaration to myself that I had truly recovered. My doctor was almost as thrilled as I was. We both took a long exhale when this task was checked off my to-do list.
For many of us, our life’s pathway is not smooth but rather one with twists and turns. And so it was for me. A little more than two years after my heart attack, I had to undergo some rather complicated surgeries — a very sick gallbladder was removed, along with my thyroid, which had some suspicious-looking nodules on it. Again, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my feet. Back to square one again in the confidence game. My doctor regularly visited me while I was hospitalized, making sure I was being well taken care of so that the healing process could begin. To have my family members and my doctor in my corner meant all the world to me, and I did what I had to do to regain my strength. Not feeling alone when facing any type of life battle is one of the best motivators in any recovery process. I was blessed.
About three years following my surgeries, I encountered another health scare. Suspicious cysts were detected in my kidneys, and I was referred to a urologist and radiologist for treatment. I confided to my family doctor that I didn’t know if I had the courage to endure yet another trial of my will. He looked me in the eyes and said, “I know you have the courage to get through this. I’ve seen you in action.” I believed him, and I did get through this troubling time.
My doctor, Dr. Andre Lijoi, stood by my side through some trying times. He was someone I leaned on when my future looked troublesome. He was always willing to listen and to try to lessen my fears. He always took the time to thoroughly explain any health issues that were concerning to me so that, together, we could best form a plan of action. Overseeing my health was a true partnership between the two of us. He is the individual I have entrusted my life to for the past 12 years. And he has never let me down, always exceeding my expectations. A highly knowledgeable and compassionate physician is someone whom any patient would be lucky to call “my doctor.” Some have said of him, “he is a national treasure,” and I certainly would agree.
After serving for well over three decades as a family medicine physician, an educator/mentor for family medicine residents, and establishing a program of narrative medicine seminars for staff and residents at his institution, Dr. Lijoi has decided to retire. As for his patients, we all wish him well, although we might also be experiencing a bit of sorrow in our hearts at his departure. Over the years, he has earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues and the trust of his patients. Godspeed, Dr. Lijoi! May there be only blue skies and smooth hiking trails ahead of you.
Michele Luckenbaugh is a patient advocate.