Thoughts after your family doctor retires

My family doctor recently announced he’s retiring from medicine after 37 years, and my husband and I were his patients for more than 18 of those years.  We had a lot of one-offs before finding him, but he was worth the wait. I want to explain why he inspired our loyalty.

He saved my husband’s mobility. A glass coffee pot separated from its handle and a shard went straight into the top of my husband’s bare foot one morning when he was making coffee. The ER doctor stitched the skin shut over a deep tendon cut. By sheer coincidence, our doctor happened to run into my husband several days later. He noticed Bruce was walking funny and asked what happened. When he explained, our doctor immediately got on the phone with an orthopedic surgeon and arranged surgery. Bruce was in surgery for more than three hours, which surprised me, but the surgeon explained it was tough going because the nearly severed tendon was hardening into place. He was only 2-3 days away from being unable to reattach it.

He guided me through breast cancer. When I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, classified as a stage 0 breast cancer, it was pretty overwhelming. While it’s infinitely preferable to being diagnosed with invasive cancer, it’s still a shock and the treatment choices can seem drastic. During one of our frequent visits, my doctor said, “I’m going to help you get through this,” and he did. When he recommended a course of treatment he said it was what he’d ask me to do if I were his wife. I never doubted he’d do any less than his best for me, but hearing this was comforting.

He listened. It didn’t matter whether our complaints were large or small, or even if we could articulate them. I’ll never forget one visit when I was having a hard time explaining something. He asked, “Do you feel like something’s wrong?” That question showed both intuition and respect.

He did physicals. I keep reading about how the physical has become a lost art, and I’ve had doctors confirm this in online chats. On one of my last visits with him, my doctor said he couldn’t tell me how many times patients have told him lately they wish a doctor would just touch them.

We do have a new doctor lined up and finding one this time was easier.  I saw one of my doctor’s young partners during his last tour of duty in Iraq. (He was a colonel in the Army Reserve and also did two tours in Afghanistan.) After he came back I said I liked the way she communicated and he told me she’s a good doctor. Coming from him, with his reputation for excellence, that’s high praise.

Still, I wanted a second opinion so I called my surgeon. I’ve gone through three breast cancer surgeries and gallbladder surgery with him and I trust him as much as I trust my family doctor. Both of them are “doctor’s doctors”—other physicians send their family members to them. I was thrilled when he recommended the same doctor and said she really knows what she’s doing.

It was a huge relief to have two doctors I trust both speak so highly of the same doctor, but there are other things I like from the patient perspective. Number One, she gave me a physical exam. (I love that intent, inner-focused look doctors get when their hands are reading your body. She and my former doctor both get it, and so does my oncologist.) Number Two, she talked—and listened. Another doctor had been recommended by someone, but when I mentioned him my doctor said, “You’ll never have a conversation with him.” I had that confirmed by a patient who said he spent less than a minute in the room with him. Finally, and this is a small thing, but I like it that she wears the white coat. I know a lot of doctors don’t like wearing it, and it’s not a deal breaker for me, but I figure they earned it as much as they earned the MD after their names. It shows respect for and pride in the profession.

I know it will take time, but I’m hoping my husband and I can build a relationship with our new doctor. She’ll be the one helping us navigate old age. She may be the one having the end of life talk with us. If it comes anywhere close to the relationship we had with our other doctor, we’ll be blessed. We will always be more grateful to him than he knows. And we wish him only the best in his well-earned retirement.

Jackie Fox is the author of From Zero to Mastectomy: What I Learned And You Need to Know About Stage 0 Breast Cancer, and blogs at Dispatch From Second Base.

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