I was not there.
What I write next is based on the flimsiest of accounts, of me being in the right place at the right time to “overhear” two doctors tell a story about a patient.
And hey, since I’m talking about two doctors and a patient, you might think this is the build-up to a swell (or dull) joke . . . right?
But it’s not a joke, and the “right place” where I heard this was also the place I’m obligated to be several times a week when my hospice holds its team meetings. I wasn’t eavesdropping on a private conversation between whispering physicians, but was one of many listeners in a room of nurses, chaplains, and social workers.
The two doctors shared about a joint visit. One doctor had been on the visit because she’s the hospice’s medical director and was making a house call on a new patient. The second doctor occasionally assisted the director and is currently (I think) involved in a formal or informal internship about hospice care. If all of my facts aren’t accurate, it’s intentional.
Other than being new—which doesn’t reveal much about the patient—I will ambiguously add this was a younger-than-average patient (whatever average is), was female (which represents slightly over 50% of the population), and she’d lived a rough life. You can interpret what you want about a “rough life.” Being homeless can be rough, although I’ve talked to some who live on the streets and they preferred the freedom and wouldn’t describe their life as “rough.” Being middle class in contemporary America may not be considered “rough” . . . but what if verbal or physical abuse was happening? A new hybrid Lexus in the garage and never skipping a mortgage payment doesn’t prevent domestic violence. Rough wears many faces. Rough can be invisible. And so saying the patient had a “rough life” is, hopefully, revealing next to nothing about her.
Like most hospice patients with a cushy or rough life, she also needed a doctor who understood pain. She needed a professional to evaluate her current condition and make recommendations about medications. She wanted the roiling, body-wracking pain she experienced from a disease to be better managed. The medical director would examine her, ask questions, and then let the clinical staff know the plan of care for the patient’s needs.
Apparently, the patient didn’t reveal much to the hospice doctor. Maybe she was used to protecting herself from questions or judgments. Maybe she was shy. Maybe she—and most can relate to this—was suspicious of anyone offering to help her. After all, why risk more expectations that become disappointments?
But the medical director was simply trying to help.
The second doctor arrived. Or perhaps the second doctor was present, but waited in the background, seeking to be a shadow on a wall. The second doctor wanted to observe how her physician colleague interacted with this shy or suspicious, but definitely anxious, patient.
And then the second doctor decided to settle in beside the patient, their chairs inches apart. She began combing the patient’s hair.
At one point in this tale told by the two physicians, the medical director smiled and said something like, “And let me tell you, the patient was definitely having a bad hair day!”
Those of us listening chuckled. Hey, everybody knows a bad hair day!
For the next moments, the second doctor combed the patient’s hair. She stroked the unkempt strands, gently teased hair off the patient’s face, and unobtrusively continued the rhythm of combing as the patient revealed more and more of her needs.
Two doctors, two professionals, two caring humans, both striving to help a patient in crisis.
As their brief telling of this patient visit concluded, the medical director grinned again and said, “When we left, the patient looked directly at my colleague here and said ‘I love you.’”
The physician’s input is crucial to the work of hospice. While 21st century medicine doesn’t cure every illness or make all the pain vanish, we live in extraordinary times where our living and dying need not be harsh or cruel. The right nourishment, the right drugs, the right equipment, the right regime of care (and so much more), are part of the modern hospice movement’s tools and goals.
But touch matters too. It is the ancient cure. Tenderness matters. It is the eternal balm. There’s no need for a fancy degree in order to hold a hand or comb hair.
We can all be “doctors” of compassion for the living and the dying . . . and even for those having a bad hair day.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by