It’s Friday afternoon and I check the day’s schedule. A name jumps out at me and I groan a little and worry — what am I going to say to someone I’ve treated for twenty years, who’s my age and just been admitted to hospice care? If this is goodbye, how do I as a physician, who is more than an acquaintance but not quite a friend, handle this appointment?
All kinds of things go through my head. Do I really want to charge for this? How bad will he look? Can I keep from crying? Is there anything I can do for him anyway? Will I ask the right questions? Will I say the right things?
He comes with a relative. He is living alone but they have found a nursing home that he liked today and he hopes to transition there quickly. He has one sorrow and one fear. He needs to find a home for his dog of 14 years. He shows me a picture of a cute lap dog of some sort. Amazingly, during his last hospital stay he met someone who is willing to take care of the dog. His fear is how breathless he will be near the end. I reassure him that every effort will be made to make him comfortable and he should not suffer.
We talk a little about his parents, with whom he has been estranged for some time. He assures me that he has spoken with them. They are older and have had their own medical challenges. I cannot imagine how they feel. He jokes a little about his relationship with them.
Finally it is time for him to go. He looks tired, but not that ill. He asks me if he should try to eat, he doesn’t have much appetite, and I encourage him to eat whatever he wants. He stands up and gives me a hug, whispering “I love you” in my ear as he does. After reminding me that the phone is a good method of communication, he leaves.
I am lost in thought and emotion but still have two more patients to see. I take a breath, walk into the next room and apologize for my tardiness. It’s probably obvious that I’m upset but the rhythm of seeing patients takes over and, somehow, reassures me.
Kathy Nieder is a family physician who blogs at Family Practice 2.0.