Seeing the love in a patient’s life can be moving. It can also remind us just how important close relationships are in life.
I met the couple in pre-op for a few minutes before I took the husband into the OR for surgery to help treat his newly discovered cancer. It was clear the couple was still very much in love with each other, and had been deeply in love throughout their lifetime together. It was noticeable—every member of our healthcare team commented on it once the man was asleep—and not in an over-the-top kind of way. It was an enduring, peaceful, and strong bond that radiated off of them.
His anesthetic course was set in motion with lines and medications and the team took the requisite moment to time out. Music started playing as the rhythm of a long surgery started—it had only just begun when we decided to stop. With one look into his abdomen, a devastating reality was clear—a tumor burden so extensive that the compassionate, logical, and justifiable next step was to close up the small incisions and break the news to his wife. No big painful incisions, no long surgical recovery, but also little remaining hope for a cure.
The surgeon called the wife on the phone. As he was dialing, Adele’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” started playing. I cried quietly along with everyone else in the room.
Sometimes a moment can be punctuated so perfectly by seemingly random circumstance that it gives a sense of ethereal connectedness. We were meant to be in that room in that moment with that sentiment projected out of the speakers. We were there to honor that man, that woman, that marriage, that love of a lifetime. We were there to love that family as we cared for our patient.
That was years ago. To this day, the song stops me in my tracks. I drop what I’m doing and listen. Not on purpose or for show or for any other reason than it’s the only thing that seems right in that moment. I remember the couple who I had the honor of serving that sad day and am grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed a moment so pure and painful. Our work can be so hard—but it’s sometimes in those intensely personal moments with patients and their families that we’re reminded of the profound trust placed in us and the deep honor to bear witness to such stark humanity. Always remember:
1. Know your patients as people.
It will deepen, enrich, and inform your empathy and compassion.
2. Recognize the significance of a change in the medical plan.
For you it may mean a less complicated or shorter day, but for patients it may be a turning point and an indelible memory.
3. Feel honored.
Know in your heart what a privilege it is to serve others in their darkest hours. In those moments, your words, intentions, and actions may matter greatly to a suffering family.
5. Love your patients.
Actually love them—as one imperfect human to another.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.