Meeting a patient again, years after a day that changed their lives

I wanted to share a serendipitous story about a patient I saw in the office today.   I normally introduce myself when I enter the room, but today was particularly chaotic, and I wrongly assumed she would know my name.  I sat down, said hello, and asked how I could help her.  She shared with me that she was having new-onset upper abdominal pain and was due for a colonoscopy.  I informed her that she would need an upper endoscopy and colonoscopy and noticed immediate concern in her masked face.

“Ever since my husband passed from having a colonoscopy, I have been scared to have one,”  she stated.  I assured her that death from a colonoscopy was extremely rare, and that she should not worry.

She responded that her husband’s colonoscopy was performed by Dr. Cho several years ago.  Alerted by a name that sounded like mine, I promptly searched the medical records and shockingly discovered that I had performed his colonoscopy eight years ago.  At the time, he was admitted to the hospital due to acute rectal bleeding. During his colonoscopy, his breathing deteriorated, and he expired due to cardiopulmonary arrest.

Suddenly, I remember speaking with her in recovery, explaining to her what had happened, a terrible unforeseen complication of sedating a very sick patient, a husband with who she would never share memories with again.

“I am Dr. Choi, and I was the doctor who performed the colonoscopy,” I confessed.

She told me that she thought it was me but was unsure since I had not introduced myself upon entering the room.  She explained to me that since losing her husband, she transitioned to caring for her ailing mother, leaving no time to grieve.  Her physical and mental health gradually deteriorated.  When her mother moved to her brother’s home last year, she and her mother’s health improved, but she still remembers the fateful day like it was yesterday.

As I absorbed the sadness of her story, separated from her by masks and distance, I felt her loss like it was yesterday.  She remembered that I hugged her that day and told her it was the worst day of my professional life.  We hugged again, and both agreed it was good we met again, years after a day that changed our lives.

Scott Choi is a gastroenterologist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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