He was sitting in a slumped posture as I opened the door and walked into the exam room. My medical assistant had just informed me that he had lost his wife of 64 years only a few days prior and was very distraught. He had been my patient for many years and his visit that day was a regular scheduled follow up appointment that happened to fall around her funeral. I was surprised he had not rescheduled his appointment. I gave him a knowing look as I approached him, put my hand on his shoulder and then gently spoke to him about how sorry I was to hear of his loss and to recognize the emotional pain he was suffering. He shuddered and continued to weep. After a couple of minutes I realized that I had left my hand on his shoulder. I gave it a gentle squeeze and sat down in front of him. When he was calmer I asked him how she died. I knew from prior conversations that she was suffering with metastatic lung cancer. She had suffered a prolonged and painful illness before she eventually died with an inability to breath. He had lovingly cared for her at their home up to her death. Although he was anticipating that day throughout her terminal illness he was not prepared for the grief he would suffer once it arrived.
He kept apologizing for his emotional state and after some time was able to speak without sobbing. I asked him to tell me how he and his wife met even though I had heard the story before. He spent the next several minutes describing how wonderful their life was together and how he cherished the long time he had with her. He candidly shared intimate details about their best and worst times. Although he was grieving he was able to smile when talking about their life together. We eventually discussed how he was feeling from a physical standpoint and I did perform a cardiac exam but that was not what he needed that day. Physically his heart was fine but emotionally it was in need of care and empathy. We discussed the plan for his health over the next few months and he was instructed to call or come back in for any concerns, whether they were heart related or not, that he may have. His tears returned as he gave me and my staff hugs as he left. Despite having several rooms of patients to see I remained frozen in place reflecting on all of the emotions I had felt and witnessed during his visit. There was something about hearing how much two people care for each other that is very powerful and beautiful. I am privileged to occasionally witness such caring as a health provider. The connection he had with his wife after being together for so long is something rare and beautiful to witness. I took a couple of moments to reflect on those that I care about as well as loved ones that are gone. I was humbled and full of gratitude that I was fortunate to experience such a moment.
It is in these moments where I feel the best about my chosen profession. Empathy and caring is part of my DNA. It is a major factor in my decision to pursue medicine. Many of my colleagues also share these traits. Today, many physicians are under time pressures especially under employment and productivity models. To dispense honest empathy takes time. Sometimes we as physicians need to spend more than the scheduled 15 minute appointment time. We are not paid to do it but that does not prevent many of us from taking extra time with patients in need. Most of my regular patients know that even though I am a specialist I am always willing to give them as much time as they need for any of their concerns. And although I try my best to keep on schedule that may mean they may wait a little longer the next time when I am providing the same for someone else. As an independent professional I am able to do this much easier than employed physicians who are under significant time constraints. I have made many sacrifices in order to do so but I wouldn’t change it for anything. Experiences such as these have made me rich beyond measure.