I met a man in the hospital the other day and fell in love with him. Well. Not "in love" in theeros sense with, like, flying cupids and romantic butterflies. But love nonetheless. It was immediate, too. Kind of like the way people describe meeting someone and falling in love at first sight.
With him, it wasn't so much me laying eyes on him that made me fall in love. It was his throaty laugh and gentlemanly mannerisms. It was in the conversation I heard him having on the phone with his daughter, massaging down her worry the best he could with brave jokes and soft chuckles. I could tell that allaying his family's fears was more important than tackling his own.
I loved the way he said "Miss Kimberly" before every question and how, no matter what I said, he would nod and thank me. He knew that I was a doctor. Somewhere in our interactions, though, perhaps that felt too formal. Maybe not. But whatever the reason, not only did I not mind him calling me "Miss Kimberly," I actually welcomed it. I did.
His admission was for the thing you don't want people to come in reporting--unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite. Vague abdominal pain and "maybe some kind of knot" in his abdomen. It was bad from the start. Sunken in temples and skin outlining high cheekbones that jutted out prominently since they didn't have to compete with subcutaneous fat. All it took was one look and I knew. This was bad.
But even worse was the story behind the diagnosis. One of those things that, had he been in a doctor's care, quite possibly could have and would have been caught. Or maybe even prevented altogether. Maybe. Like really and truly maybe.
So loving him made this harder. We made the diagnosis and called the necessary parties in to talk about the treatment. At this point, there wasn't a whole, whole lot in the way of "treatment" although there would be palliative things to offer. And he was stoic, that man. Tough as nails and with the courage of ten lions. He looked me in my eye and said, "Okay. I'm okay and I will handle this fine." And he wasn't saying it because that was what you're supposed to say either. He said it because his insight was excellent and he'd been around living his life as a patriarch long enough to know that sometimes you just have to take what's been handed to you and, well, handle it. Which was what, I think, he'd made up his mind to do.
But I loved him. Really, I did. Even though I took care of him for less than three and a half days, I loved him. Loved him enough to be mad that it was too late for anything short of a miracle and madder that I hadn't met him sooner.
In front of my team I was regular sad. Like, "Man, I hate this" sad but not really much more. But in the safety of a conversation with my very dear friend and Grady doctor, Lesley M., I grieved. And no, I'm not being dramatic by saying "grieved" either. I wept into the phone and told her how very, very sad I was about this man that I now loved and how badly I wished she or I had met him ten years ago. Met him and ran his labs and said, "You know? Let me check this" and then discovered all of this earlier. But I've been living and doing this long enough to know that a lot of times the reciprocating circuit of "if I coulda woulda shoulda" is as futile as a dog chasing his tail.
But still. I loved him. And today I'm sad because this is going to silence his beautiful, smokey laugh and quiet his glistening eyes. Short of a miracle, it will.
I allow myself love patients--and people--in this way. I do. It leaves me raw and vulnerable, yes, but still. I would much rather feel it than not care. If meeting that man and telling him such bad news ever became "business as usual" for me, that would make me far more sad. Far, far more sad.
My friend Shanta always speaks of the privilege of stepping into human lives and caring for them as their physician. I hear her voice and savor that idea. It is indeed a privilege and an honor. To care, perchance to love. Even if sometimes, it hurts when we do.
Honestly? I write this blog to share the human aspects of medicine + teaching + work/life balance with others and myself -- and to honor the public hospital and her patients--but never at the expense of patient privacy or dignity.
Thanks for stopping by! :)
"One writes out of one thing only--one's own experience. Everything depends of how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give."
~ James Baldwin (1924 - 1987)
"Do it for the story." ~ Antoinette Nguyen, MD, MPH
Details, names, time frames, etc. are always changed to protect anonymity. This may or may not be an amalgamation of true,quasi-true, or completely fictional events. But the lessons? They are always real and never, ever fictional. Got that?