How an email list changed a man’s life forever

The guy was a curmudgeon. That’s all you could say about him. His blood pressure and diabetes were dreadful, and he insisted there wasn’t anything he could do about it. The meds were too expensive; the diet was far too limiting; he had no pleasures in life other than food.

He lived alone, hated his job, saw few people, had no friends — so he told me at every visit. His visits were unpleasant in other ways as well. He didn’t bathe often, nor did he appear to believe in doing laundry.

He sent me emails from time to time. Funny pictures of cats, sentimental PowerPoint presentations on the changing of the seasons, the usual. Sometimes I read them, sometimes not, depending on how busy I happened to be at the time. Mine was just one in a long list of names in the header.

Then one night, everything changed.

I got a call from the emergency room. My patient had had a heart attack, found slumped next to his car. They’d been able to get a rhythm back, but not before he’d sustained some mild anoxic brain injury. I’m not sure how they figured out he was mine, because he really wasn’t able to communicate at all. I got to show off my spiffy EMR, rattling off his medications to the ER doc. (“Are you in the office at this hour?” “Nope. I’m logged onto my EMR from home.”)

There wasn’t much they could do for him. Just wait for his brain to improve to whatever degree it could, helped along with intensive physical and occupational therapy. Frankly, I didn’t think he had much chance for any meaningful recovery, and would likely be bed-bound and completely dependent for whatever remained of his life.

Later that night, I saw an email. The header indicated it had been sent to everyone on the curmudgeon’s contact list. It read: “Does anyone on this list have Mr. C’s daughter’s phone number? VERY IMPORTANT.”

I know what that’s about, I thought, though of course I couldn’t say anything. Confidentiality and all that. Besides, I had no idea how to get ahold of his daughter.

The next day, there was another email from someone with the same last name as the curmudgeon. It relayed what had happened to him and his current condition in far more detail than any other correspondence I’d gotten from the hospital. Followup emails from others on the list relayed thanks for the info, good wishes, and prayers. When he was ready for visitors, it was announced through the list. News of his transfer to a rehab facility was next (again, before I’d received any official notice from the hospital), followed by continued improvement and transfer to a rehabilitation facility. Finally came word that he was going to live with his daughter to continue his recovery.

Around that time, the daughter also called the office to make an appointment for a followup visit. I was as thrilled as I was surprised to see him walk into my office, unassisted except for a walker.

He smiled when he saw me, a surprisingly symmetrical smile. His neurological recovery wasn’t complete, but it was remarkable. So was his attitude. I’m not sure if the brain injury had caused a change in his personality, or if it was as simple as having nearly died, but he was a different man. Smiling, friendly, pleasant, and optimistic. Everything he hadn’t been before. And with a very long list of people who cared very much about him, that he either never before admitted, or had never believed.

As with everything else in life, there is a time and a place for “reply all.”

Lucy Hornstein is a family physician who blogs at Musings of a Dinosaur, and is the author of Declarations of a Dinosaur: 10 Laws I’ve Learned as a Family Doctor.

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