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Letter To Doctor That Lost A Patient

By Birdstrike M.D.

We all went into medicine to save lives. Deep within even the most cynical of us, is still that pre-med hopeful that believes we can and should restart each non-beating heart, make the non-breathing breathe and fill with blood those who’ve bled, filling them back with life. We expect that a patient’s condition will improve while under our care, or at least not worsen. Intellectually, we know we’ll not be successful every time. None of us became doctors to helplessly watch others die. Yet, we know there will be times, that no matter what we do, nor how perfectly we do it, that’s exactly what we’ll be forced to do, though not for lack of trying.

Ultimately, regardless of what any of us says, you’ll go over the case ad nauseum to determine “What could I have done differently?” Ultimately you may conclude you could, or couldn’t have, done something different. But the crux of it, is that the answer to that medical question is irrelevant to the what is ultimately a human experience we can’t fully control.

As medical as we try to be, it hurts to watch someone die. And the thing very few understand is the tremendous emotional risk we take as physicians, in having to be part of that, while at the same time charging ourselves with the responsibility of not allowing it to happen. Ultimately, we set ourselves up to fail. Some we can save. Many we can’t. Uniquely, we bear that emotional burden. The hospital CEO doesn’t feel that. The insurance adjuster who pays (or refuses to pay) the hospital claim doesn’t feel that. We share the burden with the family. I’ve seen fellow doctors, grown men, cry over patients lost. What you have to do, after you’ve done the analysis, ultimately are two things:

1-You first have to give yourself permission to be, and forgive yourself for being, human. You have to have compassion, not only for your patient and the family, but allow some for yourself.

2-You have to remind yourself, regardless of whether or not you ultimately decide you could/should have done some thing different, that by your being there, you took a large risk (an emotional one) and by doing so gave your patient a much greater chance of surviving, than if you hadn’t taken that risk. Even if the outcome wasn’t what you or the family would have hoped, you took a great emotional risk by choosing to be there if and when that patient would need you, and increased their chances much greater than if you weren’t there. Sometime their chance was never more than zero, but you did what the rest of the world didn’t have the courage, ability, or desire to do. You placed yourself there and were willing to risk taking the emotional bullet. Why? Because you’re a good human being and you care. I don’t know if that helps, but either way, I can assure you I’ve been there. I have cases that I think about years later; not all the time, but when something, or nothing at all, triggers the vivid memory. For what it’s worth, I feel your pain.

 

“Midnight, our sons and daughters,

Were cut down and taken from us,

Hear their heartbeat,

We hear their heartbeat.”

-U2 (Mothers of the Disappeared)

3 comments

  1. This is good. I hope that someone who needs to see it, does.

    Before my son’s first heart open heart surgery, when we met the surgeon I made a point to let him know that I understood the risks, that I knew that even if everything went perfectly according to plan there was a chance things wouldn’t end up the way we hoped, and that I appreciated him doing what he could, whatever the outcome.

    I saw other patients, and the way they interacted with him: he was a god in their eyes, all powerful, their child’s savior incarnate. – they knew that he would save their babies. I can’t imagine the pressure that must put on him, on top of the pressure he puts on himself.

    I can’t imagine living with the pressure that you guys are under on a daily basis. For what it’s worth, thanks.

  2. I needed and wanted something like this for a really long time, now.

    • I want you to know your letter isn’t just going to help fellow Doctors, but people like myself who have had mostly great experiences and awesome care from some of the most incredible Doctors and Nurses one could pray for. Gods honest truth is I know the good outweighs the bad, however losing my mother in the way I did made me more bitter in the way it was handled, feeling betrayed and deceived by a profession I have the upmost respect for plus and over the loss of my mom was destroying me,. As a God loving person I knew I had to forgive those involved plus I’ve been told over and over the forgiveness is more for me than them. I was doing good until I ran across this certain medical blog, which is an outlet for venting about patients or I guess whatever pet peeves one might have. I’m all for it but strongly believe it should be kept private we the people that depend on you guys probably should never know how some of you really feel, it sparks outrage, distrust and absolute fear. Your letter will be read often and kept forever to remind me THE GOOD DOCTORS AND NURSES OUTWEIGH THE NOT SO GOOD ONES.

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