I was working in a busy general surgery practice of seven surgeons. My partner’s and I had full practices and dedicated everything we had to our patients. We were always on the go. As doctors, we deal with death and grieving on a daily basis.
One of my partner’s fathers was quite ill. His father was also a physician. Doctors diagnosed his father with terminal cancer on top of the multiple other chronic health problems he faced. He needed to enter hospice care and time was running out.
Over the five years that I had worked with this surgeon, I witnessed his father’s health decline. There were multiple hospital admissions, surgeries, and transfers to the University. I knew this feeling all too well. Throughout this time, my partner continued to work diligently. He never complained and never took a day off. I realized that we had more in common than I once realized.
When the news of his father’s condition came, it was a Thursday and my partner had a full schedule on Friday. I was concerned for him and knew that I had to say something, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. You see, I also had a physician father and partner who became ill. My father was a general surgeon and my partner for 11 years. Two months after retirement, he was diagnosed with locally advanced pancreatic cancer. He was treated with palliative chemotherapy and died one year later.
During that year, I took one vacation with my dad. It was a wonderful week of skiing in Whistler. This trip was two months before he died and was when his cancer had diffusely metastasized. We spent many long chairlift rides in deep conversation or silence. He insisted on skiing the whole mountain. It is a vacation I will never forget, and I repeat it every year.
However, it was only one week. Seven days we had spent together. The remaining 358 days of the year, I remained attentive at work. I was a busy surgeon, and my father understood that more than anyone. My father had a stroke the week before he died. I remained at work.
When he passed away, I was in surgery with two more cases to complete. My next patients were not understanding that I had to cancel their surgery. I spoke to them personally and explained my situation. Sir, “my father has died and my family is waiting for me to come before they take away his body.”
I will forever regret not taking more time to simply be his daughter. Not a doctor, not his partner. Just be his daughter.
When I saw my partner in this similar situation, I felt the need to talk to him. My partner and I were not close, and it was awkward at first. I told him, “cancel your day tomorrow. There are six of us here. We will take care of things for you.” He didn’t say much and went on with his day. About an hour later, his nurse called. She asked me to help shift his schedule for Friday. We divided his cases among the group. he brought his father home on Friday and helped him into hospice. His father died on Saturday.
It may be one conversation, one smile, or one look that you may not otherwise have. We are all human. Each and every one of us has feelings and emotions.
If you are a doctor, this does not exclude you from this. As doctors, we perhaps face more of these feelings than the average person.
We carry around a lot of baggage that we may never express. We are constantly surrounded by triggers and reminders of illness and death.
Again, we are human. It is just as important for us to heal as it is for our patients to heal. In order to be the best that we can for our patients, we must take care of ourselves, our partners, and our families.
I’d like to think that I made a difference for my partner that day and hopefully this message will help you take time.
Whose life will you make a difference in?