American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

Friday, October 28, 2016

Love is the what

“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.”
—John Donne

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.

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Blogger MP said...

Thank you. Just thank you... For telling it like it is some days in this profession. A privilege to feel, to care, to serve. Love is definitely the what.
Marianne Parshley MD FACP
Marianne Parshley MD FACP

October 30, 2016 at 10:22 PM  

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Members of the American College of Physicians contribute posts from their own sites to ACP Internistand ACP Hospitalist. Contributors include:

Albert Fuchs, MD
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000.

And Thus, It Begins
Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.

Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Zackary Berger
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.

Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention
Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).

db's Medical Rants
Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.

Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.

Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.

Everything Health
Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.

Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.

Glass Hospital
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.

Gut Check
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.

I'm dok
Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.

Informatics Professor
William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.

David Katz, MD
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACP, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care.

Just Oncology
Richard Just, MD, ACP Member, has 36 years in clinical practice of hematology and medical oncology. His blog is a joint publication with Gregg Masters, MPH.

Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.

MD Whistleblower
Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.

Medical Lessons
Elaine Schattner, MD, FACP, shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology, and as a patient who's had breast cancer.

Mired in MedEd
Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is the Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education (CME), and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where he blogs about medical education.

More Musings
Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, a med-peds and general practice internist, returns with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).

David M. Sack, MD, FACP, practices general gastroenterology at a small community hospital in Connecticut. His blog is a series of musings on medicine, medical care, the health care system and medical ethics, in no particular order.

Reflections of a Grady Doctor
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, reflects on the personal side of being a doctor in a community hospital in Atlanta.

The Blog of Paul Sufka
Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine.

Technology in (Medical) Education
Neil Mehta, MBBS, MS, FACP, is interested in use of technology in education, social media and networking, practice management and evidence-based medicine tools, personal information and knowledge management.

Peter A. Lipson, MD
Peter A. Lipson, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. The blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture.

Why is American Health Care So Expensive?
Janice Boughton, MD, FACP, practiced internal medicine for 20 years before adopting a career in hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling.

World's Best Site
Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine physician who has avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when he first wrote medically oriented computer programs. He is in practice in Tacoma, Washington.

Other blogs of note:

American Journal of Medicine
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.

Clinical Correlations
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.

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PLoS Blog
The Public Library of Science's open access materials include a blog.

White Coat Rants
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.

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