“Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
It has now happened to me too many times to count. A person comes into the hospital. Our hands touch at that first meeting and our hearts connect. No, not just in some obligatory way that gets outlined in that first year med school lecture about ”BEING EMPATHIC.” But more in a natural way. The kind that happens when you strip down the armor of stoicism and reveal a piece of who you truly are.
Yes. So this happened to me this week. It did.
From our first encounter, I knew. I knew this patient, this person would leave me forever changed. I inwardly chuckled, knowing that it would be one of those weeks of late departures, not because of neediness on her part but my own selfish desire for more. More while I could have it. More because my patient was preparing to leave. She was.
It wasn't obvious at first. So mostly, it was just her quick wit and wisdom that created this giant magnet to which I attracted. Between laughs and reflections, I'd coordinate her care with the residents and speak to consult teams. And for every single day that she was there, I would round on her twice. First, for logistical things like pain control and management. Then, to simply close out my day. I'd drag a chair to her right side, hold her hand, and soak it in. I would and I did.
On Friday she was slowing down. Together we'd agreed upon a master plan for an intervention the following week aimed at making her feel better. But some piece of me was conflicted. “Is this what you want?” I asked her.
“What do you think?” she said.
“I think I don't want you to be uncomfortable.”
“Okay. Let's play it by ear, okay? If I'm not up to it, I think you will know. And I will trust your judgement.”
“I will pay attention, okay?”
“You always do, Dr. Manning.”
And that was the end of that discussion.
When I stepped into her room yesterday, the lights were off. It wasn't pitch dark, but more filled with shadows and only the morning sunlight. The family was at the bedside and another consultant was there, too. My team walked in and the family, with whom I'd also developed a connection, notified us that she wasn't talking. The pain in their faces grabbed me by the neck and punched me in the chest. And that, coupled with those shadows, was telling. It was.
I went to her. Usually, I offer a subtle hello and fall back when a consulting colleague has come first, but on this day I broke the rules. She was my patient. An urgency was swelling inside of me. Something was telling me, screaming to me, “You will not get a ‘2-a-day’ today. You will not.”
She was looking straight ahead, not speaking but appeared totally lucid. Like all of this silence was voluntary, representative of elevated thoughts and reflections. The first thing I did was touch her hand like always and move close to her face. “Hello sunshine,” I murmured.
And just like that, her face erupted into an enormous smile. Relief washed over the family and even the consultant. She was still there. She was. But still. I could feel it. Her hand on this day was ice cold. Yes, her spirit was still warm, but nothing else.
I asked her questions about her pain and nausea. She nodded yes and no appropriately and told me how she was. All nonverbal but still fully present. And so. I kept talking to her. And to the family. Fielding questions from them and all the while holding her cold, cold hand.
The consultant slipped out and all that remained was the family, my team, my patient and those shadows. More questions from the family came. Concrete queries that you ask when you love somebody. Love's myopic view doesn't allow for big picture objectivity. Not that kind of love. But what I've learned is that some piece of this love category, that is, the doctor-patient love category, leaves the sliver of insight that gets lost in other kinds of love. And now that I know this, I have to use it. I must.
So, I try. I try to talk but my face. It starts to get boiling hot and those tears. Those pesky tears they pour from my eyes. My voice cracks and I feel her icy hand tighten around mine like a vice grip. She knows. Her clasp stabilizes me. She gives me courage to be honest and transparent. And so I do.
I give her hand an affirming squeeze to let her know I got the marching orders. Then I turn to her daughter. “Tell the family to get here. Get them here. Today. Now. To love on her. Love hard on her like she loved on all of you.” And then I started weeping outright. And because she was holding my hand, I couldn't even wipe the tears fast enough since that would have been a two-hand job.
“Love on her,” her daughter repeated while holding my gaze. “Love on her.”
“Yes. It's all we have. Love is the what.”
There wasn't much more to say after that. Our rapport was good and my patient's response was obvious. I leaned in to tell her good bye and asked once more if she needed anything. She nodded yes to pain medicine and no to nausea medicine. “Okay,” I told her. “I got you.”
And then, just like that, she spoke. “You look so beautiful.” Her voice was clear. Nothing garbled or suggesting confusion. Sure, direct, clear. And those words? They were a gift. Not just to me, but to her family. They needed to know that she was there.
Shortly after that, my team left. Sujin, the third year medical student broke down crying and I consoled her in the hall. And my intern Sonali did the same. “Let it hurt. You want to be affected,” I told them. “And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.” Then, all of us just stood there in quiet awe of the amazing privilege we'd been given as the caregivers to this soul. We sure did.
A nurse saw us walking up the hall afterward. She asked me, “What happened? Did your patient expire?”
I smiled with my red face and snot-filled nose and replied. “No. We are just feeling fortunate to be her doctors. That's what you see.” That is exactly what I said. Because it was true.
My patient passed away yesterday. Only a few hours after that encounter. That family got to her and they were all glad they did. Sonali, the intern caring for her, loved her, too, so returned to the hospital. That sweet intern sure did. And all of it was good. It was.
I'm so glad my boundary issues allow me to feel this way. My chest is heaving as I write this, but in the very best way. We are all connected, I think. Being aware of it and surrendering to it is the issue. That's what I think.
During 1 of our late afternoon handholding sessions, my patient asked me to write about her when she transitioned. I promised her I would. And so today, I honor that promise and also present a piece of her love to you. Because love? Love doesn't expire. And love, my friends, is the what.
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, FAAP is an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches medical students and residents at Grady Hospital. This post is adapted from Reflections of a Grady Doctor, Dr. Manning’s blog about teaching, learning, caring and growing in medicine and life. It has been adapted and reprinted with permission. Identifying information has been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.