It’s Valentine’s Day 1997. I’m at Sacred Heart Hospital admitting a colleague’s patient—an elderly man dying of heart disease. On oxygen, gasping for life, he exchanges no words. His wife—unable to bear the pain of watching him die—leaves the room. So it’s just the two of us this Valentine’s Eve. A blind date. No champagne. No candlelit dinner. I could leave too, but it doesn’t seem right to let this guy die alone on this romantic day. So I sit with him, hold his hand, and cry.
A cardiologist looks in. Startled by my emotion, he says, “You must be a new doctor,” then disappears down the hall.
Maybe old doctors don’t cry, but I don’t want to close my heart to the wounded. I don’t believe in professional distance. I believe in professional closeness. And I believe in loving my patients.
During my pediatric rotation in medical school I used to stay up late at night in the hospital holding sick and dying children. I’d lift them from their cribs and sing to them, rocking them back and forth. One day the head of the department gave me a compliment I’ll never forget. He said that I was a doctor when my patients needed a doctor and a mother when they needed a mother.
A few years ago I visited the foster home where my nephew lived before he moved in with me. I spent the weekend with a dozen teenage boys, all on psychiatric medications. An autistic child had just moved into the home that day. As it got dark, he begged me to tuck him into bed. That night I tucked all 12 boys into bed and kissed them goodnight. When the foster mom found out she said, “You crazy. Them boys hasn’t been kissed in years!”
Some patients don’t need a pill. They need a kiss.
Photo by Spark Boemi
Pamela Wible, M.D., is a family physician in Eugene, Oregon. She is author of Pet Goats & Pap Smears: 101 Medical Adventures to Open Your Heart & Mind.