04 May 2013

The comfort of the dying

Doctors are expect to comfort the dying. Sometimes, the dying comfort the doctors.

The attending physician introduced me to one of his patients. While standing at the patient's bedside, and with the patient listening, the doctor recounted "this unfortunate patient's" case history. The patient had hemophilia, meaning his blood didn't clot properly on its own. During childhood, the patient had contracted Hepatitis C from contaminated blood transfusions (with today's screening methods, the risk of this occurring is remote). Now the patient had incurable and widely metastatic liver cancer, probably because of his Hepatitis C infection. Although his body was ravaged and wasted, his mind remained perfectly intact. The patient had spent most of the preceding years in and out of the hospital.

The doctor performed a physical exam and made sure that the patient's pain was well-controlled. The doctor then informed the patient that it was his last day on duty before he took off for a week. The patient smiled, and while looking us both in the eye, he thanked us and told us that he truly appreciated the excellent care that he had received at our hospital. We shook hands and left.

Medicine could no longer help this patient avoid death, and part of me felt like my profession had failed him. But the patient was not upset with us. He even mustered up the effort to thank us for our care. His words had conviction and purity, and we received them with particular solemnity and reverence. It was one of the most heartwarming moments I've experienced as a medical student. The words of a dying man mean a lot to us.