The greatest gift a physician can receive

Yesterday I looked in the eyes of a mother and told her that her son was likely to die in the next six months, and I had no more ways to try to make his heart stronger. Her son is 36 years old, and a father of two boys. He was on the bed beside her chair, covering his eyes, as if what lies before him was just too much for him to bear.

She asked me, “Why can’t he have a transplant?”

This question haunts me.

The answer to that is beyond what I can put on paper. The discussions around that are financial, political, emotional and can create a firestorm that I have no intention to flame.

But I can speak of how it affects me, in the hopes that my words on paper may help another.

When I look in the eyes of so many patients dealing with their imminent death, I see fear, anxiety, and pain. I cannot help but wonder: How have I been so fortunate? How did God decide that this person’s struggles would be his? And not mine? How have I been saved from this fate? Not only from a health perspective, but financially I know that I would have any available therapy applicable to my illness as an option. I struggle with this.

So I do what I can. As these individuals’ physician, I offer my expertise, my time, and whatever comfort I can give. I do my best to incorporate palliative care, utilizing the talents of my incredible colleagues in this specialty. I try to impart how important this part of medicine is to our trainees. While some call it “soft skills,” I reject that term. Anyone who has these difficult discussions with patients knows that there is nothing soft about them; they know, in fact, it’s often hard as hell.

I believe that the time I spend communicating with patients and families in these fearful moments, the reassurance I give that he or she will not be abandoned, the assurance that their pain and suffering will be alleviated, are all gifts I give to them. But allowing me and my team of physician trainees to walk this road with them, is by far the greatest gift.

Melanie Sulistio is a cardiologist.

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