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Blown Away

FlowerBy Birdstrike MD

I was a work today and I was given this message, “ —–‘s husband called and wants you to call back right away!  He sounded very upset.  His wife died.”

Uh-oh, I thought to myself, this is never good.  It was a patient I remembered well, that I had seen repeatedly for a chronic problem, and who always came with her husband.  We seemed to get along well.  I didn’t recall any conflict, unpleasant interactions or any immediate life threat that might have been ominous. There were no complaints to administration.  I looked in the computer, and I hadn’t seen this patient in over 3 months.  I debated whether or not to call back, not knowing what beehive I would be getting into.  Did I do something wrong?  Am I being sued?  Surely I am going to be blamed for this in some way?  Maybe returning this call would not be such a good idea.

I decided to call back.  After all, I knew the curiosity of not knowing what happened would torture me more than simply calling and facing whatever was coming my way.  I had a few extra minutes, so I dialed the phone and called.

“Hello,” answered the familiar voice of Mrs. —-‘s husband.

“Hi, this is Dr. Bird.  I got a message that you had called.  I’m sorry about the terrible news,” I said.

“Yes, she died 2 weeks ago,” he said, his voice crackling and wavering.  “I thought you would want to know.”

“Yes, absolutely, thank you for calling.  Again, I’m very sorry about your loss,” I said.  “What happened?”  I was afraid to hear the answer.

He went on to explain that 3 months after I had last seen his wife, her condition began to deteriorate (from something unrelated to what I saw her for).  He paused and choked up repeatedly in telling the story, the tears and emotions still raw.  She ended up in the ICU and on life support.  Her condition worsened, beyond any hope.  To respect her wishes, he decided to withdraw support, as she requested.  As a result, she died.  This concluded many long and painful years of an excruciatingly painful illness.  Nevertheless, he was crushed.

“She was a very strong woman and she went through a lot,” I said.  “I’m sure you miss her very, very much.”

“Yes, I do,” he said.  I could hear him now choking back full tears.  “Most of all, I wanted to call and tell you thanks, for all you did trying to help her.  I want you to know she thought the world of you.”

Wow.  That was a shocker.  After all the years of hurried patient interactions, the long nights, the grinding day shifts, and the routine ins and outs, unexpectedly, this one stopped me in my tracks.  I have to admit, he got me.  I was totally caught off guard, by the appreciation in the face of such a hurtful tragic loss.  I had come to expect utter negativity and un-appreciativeness at all turns.

“Wow, sir.  Thank you.  Thank you for calling.  I really appreciate you letting me know,” I said, in disbelief, and humbled.  After years of being a doctor in various setting, with 30,0000 or more patient interactions and counting, I can honestly count the number of times I have received this type of thanks on one hand.  At least for the moment, this one “thank you” seemed to have made up for many thanks that likely were felt, yet not necessarily sent or expressed, and likely drowned by a much noisier negativity more demanding of being heard.

So, I left work today with my faith in humanity re-instilled just a little bit, at least for today.  I drove home just a little bit more convinced that maybe all the hassles, frustrations, and stresses I deal with as a doctor amongst the choking cloud of red tape, administrative fiats, government rules and meaningless “meaningful use,” that what I do just might be making a difference, somewhere, someway, somehow, to someone.


This author does not divulge protected patient information or information from real life court cases. Any post that appears to resemble a real patient, real person, real co-workers or trial can only be by coincidence. This author does not post, has not posted and will not post factual identifying information about real patients. To the extent that any post is based on the real life experiences of the author, names, dates, ages, sexes, locations, diagnoses, and all other factual information are routinely changed to the extent that they are fictional, and certainly HIPAA compliant. Artistic license can and will be used liberally as needed.  If you want boring scientific cases presentations, read a peer reviewed journal.  Any opinions expressed here are of the author alone and not those of Dr. WhiteCoat, my employer or any of the hospitals with which I am affiliated.


  1. This post astonishes me. How would this doctor not have known what had happened to his patient ? In what state, in what state of electronic records would he not have been notified that she was in the hospital? Instead of being relieved he should have asked himself, why was I not notified that a patient of mine was in such a state? I’m sorry but I think this doctor should be demanding better coordination of patient care in his state or health system.

    • Whoa. Count to ten….. okay.
      You seem to have missed that Dr. Bird, Dr. Whitecoat, and many others on this site are EMERGENCY PHYSICIANS. On any given shift, they’re going to see 20-30 new patients a day, some of whom are repeats due to chronic illness or other reasons, but most are one offs. This goes for every workday (or night) 15-25 days a month depending on your work schedule. This means that an ED doc is seeing 300-600 patients in a given month, most of whom he will see ONCE. EVER. This is not an office practice, and Dr. Bird was referring to a patient he saw multiple times in the ED. If the electronic medical record informed me every time a patient that I had previously seen was re-admitted to the hospital (notice he didn’t even say HIS hospital), I would literally never get off that screen or pop-up alert or however the EMR chose to inform me.
      Some of our modern managed care practices receive an automatic page when a patient of theirs comes to my ED and they call to check on them. But MOST primary care docs don’t hear their patient is in unless they are called by me or the patient’s family.

      So you missed the point of Dr. Bird’s story in being able to establish a relationship like that, make an impression like that, in several short, unscheduled encounters in the ED.

  2. That is what you (Linda) took from this?!? What about “After years of being a doctor in various setting, with 30,0000 or more patient interactions and counting, I can honestly count the number of times I have received this type of thanks on one hand. ” Why has thankfulness disappeared from this society? How are physicians supposed to work for years with many unnecessary hassles and no appreciation?

  3. That was beautiful. Dr Birdstrike I hope you realize that even your mean patients appreciate you! Its just the bill and the billing department that is despised. You are invaluable! I really want you to know that! It impresses me that you were courteous enough to return this man’s phone call. A year ago my life and my son’s was saved. It took me almost eight months to come to terms with what happened. I tried to call the doctor to express my complete gratitude instead his c u next Tuesday nurse refused to allow me to speak to him. Its forbidden according to her. I called with the intention of saying thank you but instead was humiliated. So to hear there are wonderful doctors like yourself out there gives me hope that doctors are human too.

    • “I hope you realize that even your mean patients appreciate you!”

      Someone told me that once before, and I think you’re probably right. It’s still nice when someone goes out of their way to make the words heard. I suppose I should do the same.

      “A year ago my life and my son’s was saved. … I tried to call the doctor to express my complete gratitude instead his c u next Tuesday nurse refused to allow me to speak to him.”

      I would suggest writing a letter, even if it is one line, “Doc, you saved my life one year ago: Thanks.” It may be more powerful than you think.

      Regardless, “Thank you,” for the nice comment.

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