What A Dying Patient Taught A Burned Out Physician About Hope

We’ve all had patients we will remember all our lives. Usually, it’s for a good reason. The first baby we delivered. The first heart murmur patient we detected. The first patient we performed surgery on, all by ourselves.

Then there are patients we remember for all the wrong reasons.

The ones who were miserable and complained about everything, every time they came for a visit. As if the parking garage, the magazines in the waiting area and the temperature in the building were all personally controlled by us. The patient who wrote a disparaging review on a webpage when all we did was suggest that they go to another specialist because they had already refused to do what we recommended.

But the patients that live on in each of us are those who touched our hearts.

I’ve been fortunate to have lots of patients in that category over the years. Kind patients who asked about my family. Patients who brought me homemade treats and vegetables from their gardens. An Alaskan fisherman who brought me fresh-caught salmon. Patients who made us feel grateful and uplifted, just to know them.

They have all been precious gems in my jewelry box of memories.

None has made a stronger impression than Mr. Johnson.

When I first met Mr. Johnson fifteen years ago, he was pretty healthy and had a mild eyelid problem that could be treated in my office a couple times of year. He and his wife would travel from an hour away to see me, despite that fact that there were others closer to home who could have addressed his problem.

Each time they came, his wife would bring delicious homemade brownies that she had made that morning. When we saw his name on the schedule, we knew that our day would be uplifted, just by their presence. We would whisper in the hallway to each other, “The Johnsons are coming, the Johnsons are coming.” And we could almost smell the brownies from the front desk.

Over the years, we got to know each other, as I imagine happens in many primary care doctors’ offices with their patients. Most of my patients have issues that are treated and then they are released to their primary care physician. With Mr. Johnson, his was a chronic issue that was annoying but not life-threatening. So it afforded me the luxury of knowing him for many years.

We chatted through their daughter getting married, a new grandchild, my grandmother passing away, and many birthdays and anniversaries.

As the years went on, Mr. Johnson began to show more wear and tear than one would expect. His heart began to fail and he had some cardiac procedures to try to improve things.

His visits became a little less frequent. A little less jovial. You could see the worry on Mrs. Johnson’s face progress with each visit.

We got a call from Mrs. Johnson one day, telling us her husband was not doing too well. My secretary talked with her for a while and then told me about her call. I waited until my clinic was done, closed my office door, and called her. We talked for a long time, about easy things and harder things. Then, she said Mr. Johnson was very weak but he wanted to talk to me.

Mr. Johnson got on the phone. With labored breath, he at first was talking about everything but. Everything but the elephant in the room. The weather. The time of year. The garden.

Then, he sighed heavily. He thanked me for all the care I had given him over the years. The lump in my throat grew as I tried to talk back in a normal voice. “I’m not afraid,” he said. “I’ve had a wonderful life.” As the tears ran down my face, I croaked back, “It’s been an honor to have you as a patient. I love you.” He said, “I love you, too.” I hung up and cried for a while before turning out the lights and driving home.

A few weeks later, glancing at the morning paper before I headed out the door for work, I read that Mr. Johnson had died. The funeral was to be a couple hours away, in the middle of the week, when I normally had a busy clinic.

After shedding more tears on the way to the office, I called my team into my office. I told them the sad news. And told them that we were going to close the office that day, in honor of Mr. Johnson. I invited them to attend his funeral with me, if they chose. Or they could have the day off.

At Mr. Johnson’s funeral, all my staff were there. Hugging his sweet wife, dabbing their eyes. When I met his daughter and introduced myself, she said, “Of course. He talked about you all the time. So did my mom. I’m so glad you came.”

In medicine, our job is to cure or at least help. It’s not always possible. Although I knew my eyelid expertise couldn’t help Mr. Johnson’s heart problems, I felt a sense of loss as surely as his cardiologist must have.

Driving the long journey home from his funeral, I remembered our last conversation. What had Mr. Johnson really wanted me to know? What could I take with me as my lesson from his life?

Hope. Hope that all of us are bound by a connection we can’t even see. Hope to every doctor who has ever had a patient we truly loved beyond measure. Hope that our efforts, big and small, mean something to the receiver. Hope that we did, in fact, make a difference.




CATEGORIES: Blog on February 10, 2015 by Starla Fitch, M.D.

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2 thoughts on “What A Dying Patient Taught A Burned Out Physician About Hope

  1. Pam Pappas MD

    Beautiful writing as always, Starla. You’re so good at getting to the heart of things.

    In this story, I find myself wondering whether Mr. Johnston’s cardiologist might have felt similarly — and may have shown up at the funeral also? Or was s/he possibly lost in the tumult of other patients that day, unable to close an office and join in? So many competing pulls upon us, our responsibilities, and our loves.

    Thank you for sharing this story.

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      Thanks for your kind words, Pam. I think it is quite rare for a physician to attend a patient’s funeral. As was the case in our office, we had to cancel a whole day of patients — not easily done. I know many colleagues who take the time to send a card to the family of their patients who pass away. I think just that recognition means a great deal.


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