I’ll never forget one of the couples I took care of as a fourth-year medical student. The wife was a beautiful, petite, white-haired marble sculptor. She was a dreamer and had a twinkle in her eye even as she laid in her hospital bed. Her husband was a well-build stoic engineer originally from Germany. He sat at her bedside reading her the paper, caring for his wife of over 50 years with the love of a young man and the devotion of a lifetime together.
She was in the final months of her struggle with breast cancer. They spent every day together in the hospital. With a generosity of people who have loved deeply, they let me into their life. I spent afternoons sitting at my patient’s bedside listening to their stories of how they managed to be in love after so many years.
One day, she took my hand and told me that the one thing she wanted most in the world was to see her granddaughter again. They had a 3-year-old granddaughter in Florida who was the embodiment of joy for both of them. But they hadn’t seen her or heard from her in months. Their only daughter had fallen into a troubled marriage, and their son-in-law had convinced her to cut off all communication with them. Phone calls went unreturned, and gifts came back in the mail unopened. But still, their love for their daughter and granddaughter never waned. Not one bit.
Though I briefly contemplated flying to Florida to talk some sense into their daughter, I knew I did not have the power to make things perfect for my patient. I could not bring their daughter and granddaughter back into their lives, nor could I give her ten more years of life with her husband.
But I could ease her symptoms and help fend off complications so they could spend more time at home together. I could make sure they knew that to me, they were not a list of pathology and medications and laboratory results, but a beautiful pair of human beings who had so much wisdom to share with a young medical student.
To this day, I picture their room with a magical glow created by their relationship and their kindness. The same glow in ever changing hues is the heart of medicine, the profession I love despite its warts and challenges. It is the glow of a care partner who finds time in her afternoon to give a manicure to a patient with unexplained severe weakness in her arms and legs who longs to go home to her 4-year-old son. It’s the glow of a nurse hugging patients goodbye as they wheel out the hospital homeward bound.
We often think and write about our health care system as glitzy pharmaceutical ads and the bottom line and state budgets and the count of votes in Congress. But in this holiday season, we are reminded as we are every year that one of the most important and fundamental things in life is the relationships we form with family, friends, and even perfect strangers. In medicine, we have the privilege of being let into patients’ worlds at their darkest hour and helping them through to the best of our ability.
To all who serve patients and all the patients who allow us to care for you, thank you for being a part of something worth fighting for – a kinder, more compassionate, more innovative and wondrous health care system where the heart of it all is our care for one another.
To everyone in the Doctors for America community, thank you for daring to care, for challenging the way things are, for dreaming about the way things should be, for taking action in the face of uncertainty, for being a part of what makes me proud to be a doctor today and every day.