I love Raymond Carver's poem "What the Doctor Said." The doctor tells the poet he has widespread metastatic lung cancer. The poem ends with this:
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me
Something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong
I may even have thanked him.
I don't have to tell people they are dying. I'm a hospice doc. My patients know they are dying before they meet me. Everyone knows they are dying. They may not want to say it out loud, and they may use a variety of euphemisms, but everyone knows. I don't have to say it. I do have to find a way to answer the question "How long?" I always start and finish my answer by saying "I don't know." We never know for sure. I am frequently surprised - I am surprised how quickly some people die and how long some others linger. I am surprised by so much about this work. I am surprised by the peace that I feel at the bedsides of the dying, and how comfortable it can be in our inpatient hospice unit. I am surprised at the laughter I find when I make home visits. I am surprised by the capacity of family members to do the hard, dirty, physical work of caring for their loved ones.
And I am surprised when they thank me.
Patients thank me for coming to their homes. "A doctor who makes house calls! In this day and age"! Caregivers thank me for the medication that eases the symptoms and makes their job easier (even though it's the nurse who tells me what they need). Family members thank me for clear explanations of the medical system and for signing forms (although most of that credit should go to the social workers who do all the actual work). All of that makes sense. I have done something, given them something, provided an answer or solved a problem.
Then there's the question no on ever wants to ask: "How much longer, Doc?" It's often asked in the hallway of our inpatient hospice unit. Someone is usually crying. Sometimes the someone is me. I am as honest as I can be when I don't really know. I say "I don't see anything that suggests it will be the next few hours...", but I know the patient might be gone when we walk back into the room. I ask what the family needs - what decisions are they wrestling with? Who needs to come in from out of state? Who are they trying to protect? And at the end of the conversation, they say "Thank you." I am always surprised.
I don't really know why they are thanking me. Perhaps it's for some clarity and honesty after the muddle of modern medical care. Perhaps it's for the moment of connection and the respect I hope I'm communicating. And perhaps it's what Raymond Carver wrote about - that I have given them something no one else ever has.
Those moments will continue to confound and humble and amaze me, and for that, I am thankful.
Jay is an internist working full-time in hospice and palliative care and mom to a 15-year-old daughter.