Financial Times Weekend Magazine | August 26, 2011

By Kiran Gupta

Occasionally, we are touched deep within and forced to experience the realities of life and loss

As doctors, we become intimately involved in the affairs of families we barely know. There is an element of emotion to every interaction we have with our patients – sadness, joy, anger, denial, frustration, acceptance, hope or amazement. Often, we suppress these feelings as we go through our busy days. But occasionally, we are touched deep within, and forced to experience the realities of life and loss.

Mr X was one of the sickest patients in our intensive care unit (ICU). He was in his mid-thirties with a rare form of cancer. He had been fighting the disease for two years. After numerous surgeries, he had somehow made it back to work, to life as a loving husband and the doting father of two young girls.

This hospital stay would end differently. The day prior to my shift, Mr X had been transferred to the ICU from the oncology service. Unstable, he was intubated and sedated. At 2am, it became clear that he was going to die within the next 24 hours. Softly, I knocked on the door to his room. As I explained the situation to Mrs X, I watched the tears well up in her eyes. After some time, she asked if she might go home to tuck her daughters into bed. I encouraged her to do so, promising to call if Mr X’s condition worsened.

The next morning, Mrs X arrived with her eldest daughter, aged seven. Clasping my hands in hers, she explained she wanted her daughter, who had been asking to see Daddy, to have the opportunity to say goodbye. To my surprise, she wanted me to accompany them in case the young girl had any questions.

I had not known Mr X when he was conscious. I had never spoken with him. I never watched him play with his children. Yet his wife wanted me, practically a stranger, to accompany her and her young child through one of their most challenging moments.

Together with the nurse, I covered most of Mr X with clean white sheets so as to hide the lines and tubes. When we were ready, Mrs X brought her daughter in. At first, the girl was timid. But then she let go of her mother and touched the hand poking out from the sheets. After a moment, she pressed her lips into Mr X’s palm. “Bye-bye, Daddy.” Then she turned, “Mommy, it’s time to go now.” And that was it. Mrs X let out a sigh of relief. Allowing her daughter some closure had given her the strength to say her own goodbye. I had watched Mrs X let go.

After I walked them back to their family, Mrs X hugged me tightly. “Thank you” was all she said. I didn’t know what to say. Suddenly, my shift was over. I didn’t know what or how to feel. The strength and grace with which this family had handled the death of a man whose life was taken too soon was both heart-wrenching and inspiring.

Some days I wander home from the hospital feeling nothing in particular. But that day, as I clutched the steering wheel, I sobbed uncontrollably. As I walked into the ICU the next day, I saw another patient in Mr X’s bed. My team never mentioned him again. They had moved on. But I have not stopped thinking about Mr X and his family.

Sometimes, we doctors prevent ourselves from becoming emotionally involved in the care we provide. But our patients and their families remind us that there is value in experiencing the emotional complexities of the lives we care for. Feeling emotion makes us better doctors. We are grateful for the reminder of humanity in its truest sense – to momentarily be a part of what another person is experiencing. This is what gives the practice of medicine its meaning.

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