There’s a reason we do so many TV shows and movies about doctors. They literally hold the power of life and death in their hands. There’s no way to know when a case will go south, and a routine procedure will become life-threatening. Or, the most dire predictions can turn out to be wrong, and life persists.
If you’ve never read anything on the group blog KevinMD.com, I recommend it. Sooner or later, we are all in the hands of a physician, but we know so little about their inner lives (and we won’t learn much from those TV shows and movies).
Here’s a sampling. Get some tissues. I’ll need some just putting this post together.
From Aug. 12, 2016, two miracles — first, a baby.
Her water ruptured, a little too early, and Jeff drove her frantically to the hospital. Two months too early, little Samatha was born. Fragile and delicate, 3.5 pounds. And they had to rush her to the neonatal ICU. Jeff stared at this small creature they had made together.
As he held her in his hand, her tiny fingers grasped his finger. And they were smitten with each other. This little girl would be his baby princess. He would do anything forever to make this baby Sam happy. She was so tiny, everything was delayed, her speech, her fine motor skills, her walking. But with great love and diligence, Jeff and Bridget finally got to see baby Sam lift herself off the floor and started slowly hobbling over to her mom and dad. Those first steps were a triumph. Baby steps. They were so grateful for those baby steps.
Then one day, dad went down while cutting the grass. But that’s not the end of the story.
A reminder that we are guaranteed nothing — not today and certainly not tomorrow.
About a half dozen years ago, I was almost killed when a car made a left turn through a traffic signal and ran me over while I was riding my bike. I wound up laying in the gutter in a somewhat dissociated state listening to these very troubling involuntary moans coming out of my mouth, with incredible pain in my side and feeling myself getting cold as I was going into shock.
“I just want to see my son again. I don’t want to die on the side of the road.”
I did not. And during the month I spent in the hospital and the months I spent recovering, I realized two things. First, five seconds either way and that accident never would have happened. It was just fate. It was uncontrollable. Second, that event became a catalyst for change in my life. Like a lot of people, my life had become a routine that was in many ways unsatisfying. I was financially comfortable but emotionally and spiritually unhappy. I was settling. And life, as I’ve learned, is too short and unpredictable to just settle.
Then a woman came into the ICU …
A doctor and a hospital staff unwilling to leave a doomed baby to die alone:
He was not active and vigorous like other healthy infants. He was taking rapid and shallow breaths. My supervisor told me to wrap him up and take him down to the morgue. I was crestfallen at the thought of this tiny person taking his last breaths on a metal table alone. I respectfully refused. No one should die alone. Another senior resident felt the same, and the two of us brought this fragile newborn back to the NICU with us.
My co-worker agreed to round on my patients while I held the baby in the rocking chair and then after an hour or so, we would trade places. It went on like this for 4 hours, when his father walked in expressing he wanted to hold his son. Relief washed over me knowing this beautiful infant would be held by one of his parents before his untimely death. We left the father with his baby to spend precious time, grieve, and say goodbye. At some point, he emerged from the room and handed the newborn back to me. After six hours, this tiny human being took his final breaths and his heart stopped.
Another heartbreaking moment for a new mother and a doctor:
The silence of the newborn expands the emptiness of the small room, which shrinks further when several teams work side-by-side. The neonatal team presents the newborn. “You can hold her. She is too small for us to help her.”
I can’t help but wonder if this is self-fulfilling prophecy. We have decided to allow another human to die. Are we playing God? Or are we providing compassion by refusing to prolong suffering? I can only have faith that, by trying to do the right thing, we are.
While the patient holds her daughter, I have no interest in dealing with the placenta. This is the only time she will hold her daughter alive. We cover the crimson that contrasts her pale legs. The parents hold their dying daughter in a perfectly quiet room. We don’t dare leave, nor deliver the placenta, lest they miss the short life of their newborn.
And a doctor asking “Is it possible to be a Christian and practice emergency medicine?”
And although we may have sin in our hearts, although we judge and are angry and frustrated, we do His work. That is, brothers and sisters, we bring love and touch and healing and comfort to those who frequently have done nothing to deserve it, who exhibit no gratitude or intent to change, but who need our love, need the love of Jesus. And like Him, we will show it seventy times seven, through temper tantrums thrown our way, complaints, cruel words, irresponsibility, patient satisfaction, EMR (the devil’s work) and every other difficulty.
Dear ones, in the ER, grace is at work, and a model of grace is there for you to enact and understand. You give undeserved love and care for everyone all day, every day. The Spirit gives you strength in hardship so that you may be bold, whether rested or tired, prepared or unprepared.
And lastly, from another source, the U.K. Guardian, a story about a doctor photographed while sobbing after losing a teenage patient — but empathy has its limits:
It’s a simple and haunting image. An accident and emergency doctor crouches in the California rain, hanging on to a wall, grieving for a lost 19-year-old patient. The snapshot was shared many times on social media, having been posted by a paramedic, with the doctor’s permission. I doubt either of them realised that it would reach – and touch – a huge global audience.
And yet it’s not so surprising that it has. It’s rare to get a glimpse of a doctor whose professional mask has slipped. Judging from the overwhelmingly sympathetic response to this photograph, it’s hard to see why. At first, anyway.
Professional masks are important, because what they hide is important. There’s comfort in being reassured that what they hide is passion, empathy, emotional engagement. We feel sorry for the guy, but also approve of him. We want our caring professions to care.
But we can also see that such empathy might be a professional burden. One hopes, for the doctor’s own sake, that he will not continue to find himself crouching sporadically behind that wall, until one day he decides that medicine is not for him. We can see that he has not yet found a balance – that in order to save lives, he has to be able to accept that lives will sometimes be lost, and that it is for others to weep for those losses.
Image: Wikimedia Commons