March 30, 2007

Healing a Breaking Heart

It's rare that I truly heal anyone.

I am an ER doctor. My days (mostly nights, actually) are spent treating coughs and colds, patching wounds created by drunken falls and flying bullets, and battling off the inevitable progression of chronic disease.

Sometimes I get the feeling that some people expect me to be a healer, which I'm not. I can give you antibiotics to make an infection go away, but the medicine does the healing - not me. I can fix the nastiest gashes and cut open your chest and sew your heart back together, but almost all wounds heal with simply the prescription of time.

The one thing I feel like I can sometimes heal is despair.

An early-60's lady with breast cancer that had moved to her spine and pelvic bones came by ambulance to my ER last night. She said the pain in her pelvic bones and hips had been so severe the last several weeks that she wouldn't eat or drink anything for fear of having to walk to the bathroom. Last night, weakened by severe dehydration, she stood up and collapsed to the floor and broke her hip that already was being eaten away by cancer.

When I saw her, I first was struck by her lips - parched, cracked with several layers of dead grey skin that needed to be cleaned away before you could even see their natural pink. The next thing that struck me was how pleasant she was. This lady had every reason in the world to be pissed off and frustrated at her plight, but she was appreciative and nice and even may have let loose a slight smile.

Later when I talked to her about staying in the hospital to get hydrated and have an orthopedist take care of her hip, I realized there had been no family with her.

"Do you have family nearby?"
"I guess I do..."
"Hmm, what does that mean?"

I could sense a wave of disappointment in her at the recognition by someone else that she was dying lonely.

"Well, I only have a son left, and I've been trying to call him for a month but his phone message just says he isn't taking any calls. I had my neighbor try to call him and she just got the same message."

I can't describe the emotion that was pouring out while she was saying this. If you have kids you hope your kids will be there for you when old to return the favor of their life and childhood. I can't imagine the feeling of abandonment and anger when they are not. This is what she was feeling, and it showed.

"He has a 3 year old son too..."

I don't like people to emotionally hurt. I've experienced enough of it to know that misery, and it hurts me when people hurt like that. So I sat down in her bed with her, and I held her hand. And we talked...

We talked about her son, and her only grandchild. We talked about her mom and her dad that died in WWII. We talked about God, and we shared a short prayer that her suffering might be eased. We even talked about dying, and she told me she wasn't ready to give up yet even if it meant having to tolerate intolerable pain.

I spent way too long with her. But it was worth it. I think it helped her, and I know it helped me.

I assigned my social worker the task of finding her son and getting him to the ER. The local police found him in his apartment and had him with his mother within an hour. After he arrived, she smiled more than anyone I've ever seen with a broken hip.

Time heals, in most cases. But sometimes the burdens of disease make it impossible to heal the complicated social situations we encounter today.

Last night, I think I really healed. I healed a heart that was starting to break inside an already broken body.

If you have a mom or dad, call them, thank them, hug them if you can. They miss you more than you know...

Thanks for joining me for My Daily Spin.


Renee said...

That was one of the most powerful and moving posts I have ever read. Anywhere. Thank you for all that you do, and the encouragement that you are.

Iron Girl Nyhus said...

Great post DV. Thanks for sharing. It's awesome that you can recognize when someone is hurting (emotionally) and help them with your kind heart. Thanks.

Mallie said...

You're a stand-up guy, Jack. You gave that lady something more important and precious than your medical expertise. You gave her time, consideration, care and hope. Her son should be horsewhipped, but you let that go and just got him there to see his mom. Again. You're a stand-up guy.

Bike Chick said...

What you did - talking to her and getting the social worker to find her son - probably helped her more than the any of the meds you gave her. You are a healer, don't count yourself out as being a part of the healing. Kindness and caring are as good for the soul as meds are for the body. And I'm sure you know that soul and attitude have a lot to do with how well a person recovers. Thanks for sharing this.

TriGirl 40 said...

Wonderful story - your hospital is lucky to have you in the ER.

Bigun said...

ER Docs are a varied group, that's for sure - some seem to care little, and some, like yourself, are spot on - caring has to be tough - I hope my next visit puts a guy like you in front of me or Mrs. B...

Robin said...

Wow, what a powerful moment you shared there. That woman, and everyone who comes through your ER, is blessed to have such care. Your post reminded me of the episode on 6 Feet Under of the woman who dies alone, and all the feelings that brings up in the people who care for her body. I'm glad your patient does not have that fate to look forward to, thanks in large part to your care and help.