DRHOOK- Losing patients: Why I cry every time

the handsome doctor John Hong of Charlottesville

Death and taxes are the only two things that are guaranteed in life. In fact, we even get taxed for dying... so you just can't win. Too bad we can't file our death like we file our taxes...looking for loopholes and deductions to cheat death. CPA would stand for "Can't Pass Away."

My religion professor, who had the strongest German accent in the world, used to say, "Vonce du realize du are finite, du vill start to live an honest life."

I was only 17 at the time and didn't really get what he meant. "Of course we are going to die. So when is our next term paper due? I need to get an A so I can get into medical school."

Once I got into medical school and, in particular, once I started taking care of patients, I all too well learned what death is. Or should I say I started to learn what death means, because I am still learning about it.

What does it mean to a doctor when he/she loses a patient?

I have been pretty lucky in my medical practice because I haven't had many patients die. But when it does happen, it really stinks. In fact in recent years, I cry every time a patient dies. (God, I hope that doesn't make me look like that weird Florida judge who cried over the Anna Nicole Smith trial!)

The closer I get to a patient, the more it hurts when she or he dies. In the past year I have had a handful of dear patients pass away, and frankly, it leaves me wondering, "Where are they now? What happens after we die?"

I want to believe that after life, it will be an eternal sleep on a Tempur-Pedic Mattress: restful, comfortable, and scenic. "Hey, those rings of Saturn are pretty cool up close!" (My luck, I'd hit an asteroid.)

I find it unsettling that I will never know what is death until I actually die. When I get a chance to see a sunset, I have actually been asking some of my patients who are now gone from this world, "Hey, if you are out there under those orange and red streaks of light, can you give me a sign of what is to come?" So far, no text messages, no emails, or voice mails from the cosmos above.

Two of my patients last year died in their prime of life: one from a rare cancer, and one from heart disease. They fought tough battles and were so courageous, but their medical problems eventually took over.

And what I think about is, "All their relationships, all their experiences, and all the goodness they brought to others has now come to a close."

Sure, while I'm taking care of them for their pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, etc., I also know I am treating more than just them. I'm treating a whole network of people who will feel great loss when they are gone... including me.

In January, I saw a 91-year old man embark on a new journey, hopefully on a Tempur-Pedic mattress in the universe. And as his partner in life mourns, I also know hundreds– if not thousands– of people carry on the memories of the amazing things he did to touch others. Everyone kept saying to me, "I wish you had known him when he was younger. He was so vivacious." I kept responding, "I knew. It has been there all along."

In the back of my mind for those who have died, I keep thinking, "Could I have done more?" However, unlike Voodoo, the medical field cannot prevent death. We can only help make life as good as possible for others. 

Farewell my patients– my friends. Have a Cosmo up there for me.


1 comment

It's very encouraging to me that there are doctors that cry when they lose a patient. It's a good thing, it means you care about your patients as people.