Even if no life was saved, an ER physician makes a difference


I walk out of the patient room.  My eyes stare at the computer screen.  I’m behind, way behind.  I roll my head on my neck.  My neck feels tense, and I have a headache.  It’s been a long week.  I need a vacation.  Hurry up, click-click-click this computer, I think to myself.  Dammit, is this EMR really freezing up again?

I look up.  A man walks out of a patient room across the hall.  Our eyes lock.  I quickly look away.  Ouch, my neck.   There are patients waiting. I need to get moving, or I’ll never get out of here, I think to myself.  I put my head down and turn to walk away.

“Doctor.  Doctor.  Are you Doctor Bird?” he calls to me with urgency.

Crap, I think to myself.  I’m never going to get caught up.  He does look familiar.  I hope he’s not mad at me.  Who is this man?  He probably wants to sue me, or maybe he’s angry I didn’t prescribe him those pills he wanted.  Man, my neck.

“Yes?” I answer, hesitantly.

“Did you work at —– Medical Center about ten years ago?” he asks.

He looks so, so familiar, but I can’t place him.

“You won’t remember me, but you took care of my son,” he says, with a faint, but warming smile. Right then, it hits me, like a ton of bricks.

“My son had cancer,” he says.

“Brain cancer,” I answer, and right then my mind goes back ten years at warp speed, back to room 10, during a chaotic shift at my first job out of residency.  I’m looking at a 12-year-old boy laying in bed.  His eyes are sunken and gaunt, skin pale, hair blond. He’s dying of cancer, and all treatments have failed.  I had never seen a child so sick, so ill appearing, yet still alive.  He looks like he’s in terrible pain.  There’s nothing left to do, but to try to make his last few days, hours and moments as painless as possible. He needs IV fluids, some pain and nausea medicine and needs to be made comfortable.  In a chair next to him is his father, dying inside.  My heart sinks.  “I remember you, and I remember him.  I even remember the room you were in.”

“He died shortly after that.  But I still remember you.  You really took the time to ease his suffering, if only for a short time.  That meant a lot to me.  Most of all, you seemed to actually care,” he says.

I felt a little dizzy.  I felt like I was having a flashback of the PTSD sort; so vivid and real. I remember the chaos of the shift.  Walking down the far hallway, walking into the room and closing the door.  As the door closed behind me, the noisy chaos behind disappeared, and it was stark quiet.  I remember feeling the heart-wrenching sadness of this man sitting next to his dying son, so helpless.  I felt equally helpless.  I remember thinking, I don’t care how many patients are waiting.  I don’t care how long the wait is, or what chaos is swirling outside that door.  I need to pause and try to at least listen, if only for a short time.  I need to at least acknowledge what this boy, his father and family are going through.  I need to try to find some way, no matter how small, to make things a little better, or a little less painful for both of them, if I can.  At the very least, I need to let them know that despite the impersonal chaos swirling outside the door that someone appreciates the tragedy, the gravity, and the heartbreak they’re going through.  Someday, I’ll have children, I think to myself. Someday this could be my child or my family member.  Someday this could be me.

“I had the perfect little family,” he says.  “Then my son died.  Shortly after that, my other son went off to college.  My wife and I were ‘empty nesters.’  It was all too much for her.  Then she left me,” he said with a distant sadness as if the scars ran deep, but were distant and faded enough that he now was able to cope.  “And then it was all gone.”  He somehow manages a smile.

“Wow.  I’m so sorry,” I say, mostly at a loss for words, having suddenly been pulled out of my mundane day, 10 years back, to an interaction that was very brief, that I had thought I had forgotten.

He smiles again.  “I don’t want to keep you any longer.  It looks like you’re having a busy day.  Again, I just wanted to tell you I remembered you.  You were very nice that day.  And thanks,” he says as he turns and walks away.

“Thank you,” I say, truly touched, and half choking out the words myself.  I turn and walk away.  I put the computer down.  I sit down.  I take a deep breath. Somehow, I think to myself, somehow, I had made a difference.  There was no life saved that day, no heart restarted.  There was no great diagnosis or adrenaline-inducing procedure to be done.  But despite all the frustrations, long days, stresses, and defeats, somehow I feel a little bit like George Bailey from the movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and that an angel-like being had come to tell the faint vestige of the idealistic pre-med hopeful that still remained in me, “Keep up the good work.  You’re making much more of a difference than you’ll ever know.  Job well done.”

My eyes lock back down on to the computer screen to see who my next patient is going to be.  I need to get back to work as I’m falling farther behind.  For a moment, my neck feels slightly better, and my headache is gone.  I look at the clock.  My day is almost done.

“BirdStrike” is an emergency physician who blogs at Dr. Whitecoat.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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