Thursday, May 20, 2021

Guest Post: Thinking about loss in medicine

 - Jason Kurland, MD

Seven years into my medical career and one year into COVID, I've been thinking a lot about loss. Thinking about the primary care patients I lost during COVID and those who died in years prior to the pandemic. I don't find myself missing every patient who has died months later, but I do think of the ones who saw me in clinic regularly every 3 months, then every 2, sometimes every 2 to 4 weeks when their health worsened. The ones I squeezed into an urgent care shift because they needed to be seen by someone familiar with their history. The ones I recognized immediately from my colleague's texts: "admitted your 67 y/o patient with CHF" or "recurrent GIB" or "decompensated cirrhosis." Since I practice full spectrum family medicine in a rural hospital, I may see some patients in clinic one week and in the Emergency Department (ED) or on the medical ward the next. On occasion, I might deliver their granddaughter’s child.

I recall the night over a year ago when we coded a 92 year-old woman, found down at home, only to hear a second ambulance arrive as I called the code. The new patient was her son, my primary care patient. I ended up diagnosing him with yet another myocardial infarction that night; he had five stents already. He survived another year and had many more clinic and virtual visits. Last spring, he was found pulseless on the bathroom floor at home. I walked past our single negative pressure ED room where my colleagues were struggling to restart his heart, unaware that it was him until a screener in the hall outside told me. I poked my masked and shielded head in the door to confirm his Do Not Resuscitate order, ending the code. I then broke the news by phone to his wife who was waiting outside the hospital, per our stringent pandemic visitor policies.

After all of those visits, the setbacks and the improbable upturns, my patient is gone. My role now is to comfort the family, help them process the loss. I feel a grim sense of pride in doing a good job of death care.

My patient no longer pops up reliably in my schedule. I have no reason to open the chart. The time I spent reading about one of their complications or discussing their care with a specialist who ultimately agrees "that's hard, there's no simple answer" no longer keeps me after clinic. I lose the pleasure of checking in with a patient whom I also happened to have liked as a person. I lose the moments when I tell a colleague who is taking care of my patient in our urgent care, "so, the history on that is...."

Of course it makes sense that patients who have an outsized presence in my professional life can, sometimes, have an outsized presence in my emotional life. On good days, it feels like what I do really matters. Even when I have nothing medical to offer, I sense my longtime patients appreciate a familiar voice. But my patients and I inevitably share an asymmetric intimacy. I learn secrets about them, and I am present at their moments of extreme vulnerability. I might share a fact about me or show them a picture of my daughter being goofy. I can drop a detail into our visit that humanizes me or connects with something in their life. But ultimately, I am there for them.

My profession doesn't have a custom or a process for my grieving. Twice in the last year, I had to stifle the impulse to ask a terminally ill patient I’ve known for years for a selfie with them. I recognized, even as the thought occurred, that the request was inappropriate, that it blurred a line. Reflecting since, I realize I just wanted something by which to remember them, to recall our connection, shared jokes and disappointments, our relationship.


Dr. Kurland is Director of the Emergency Department at Zuni Comprehensive Community Health Center in New Mexico.