Sunday, June 5, 2011

hand in hand

Two random occurrences conspired to make me feel blue this weekend…although I’m recovering nicely, thank you very much.

Yesterday I was in a “slash and burn” mood…meaning I cleaned out a few closets, drawers, and bins that haven’t been touched in years and simply needed to be trashed…or so I thought.  Then I came across an entire collection of thank you notes from my patients. I swear that over the years I saved every single one of them, they meant that much to me.

In medicine, I so seldom felt that what I did for my patients was enough. I was able to tend to their medical care, but then I left them alone to deal with their pain and sorrow and confusion. I wanted to do more for them…but who had time? I had a schedule to keep and diagnostic codes to consider and insurers who denied reimbursement for services that required compassion, reassurance, consolation, and counseling…the kind of care that takes time.

Still, my patients thanked me…some of them for the simplest things—for fitting them in early or because I stayed late for them, for a reassuring phone call the evening before their surgery, for services rendered gratis when they couldn’t afford food—simple kindnesses that anyone would extend. Patients thanked me for taking the time to explain things to them...and for meeting with their families to answer questions. There was a note thanking me for curing a defiant wart with duct tape. There was even a note from a patient thanking me for fitting in her sigmoidoscopy (!) after she’d arrived late for her appointment. I could have asked her to reschedule…and to re-prep…but nobody should have to go through that a second time!

The letters I received reminded me of the heart and soul of medical practice…the simple caring touches that softened the unyielding fortress of health care technology, and eased my patients’ apprehension…gestures that my patients remembered with such gratitude. Their notes and cards reminded me how much I miss them and that made me sad.
Then today I went to church and it happened again.

When the congregation proceeded to the altar for Communion, my patients were among them. Every week when I go to Mass, I know who has terminal cancer and is there despite his pain. I know who has lost a child because of illness or trauma or service to our country. I know who has lost a child to suicide. I know who is caring for a family member with cancer or dementia or addiction. I know who has been abused. While their enduring faith encourages me, I miss being connected with them the way I was before I retired. And that makes me sad, too.
When we move on in life, we choose to leave certain things behind—our comfortable routines, our favorite places, and faces that are familiar to us.  But the memory of them follows us wherever we go…a good thing, I think, even when the memory sometimes makes us feel blue.
Which is why we need days like today! A day full of good news! The first patient with AIDS to be declared cured. A drug to prevent breast cancer in post-menopausal women. A new drug to fight advanced melanoma. All reasons to celebrate!
And, too, there was the warm sunshine and soft breeze. The fragrance of honeysuckle in the air. The playful flight of butterflies in the meadow and birds singing in the woods.
Joy and sorrow hand in hand. Who would have it any other way?
Would you?
“Always be a little kinder than necessary.”
--Sir James M. Barrie--
In my next post I plan to share a few writing tips.

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