A Belated Thank You

It was late. I had just finished a straight-forward appendectomy. I explained the findings and expectations for recovery to the family gathered in the waiting area. There were a lot more people there than in the emergency room just a few hours earlier.

“Yes, he will most likely be going home tomorrow morning,” I answered in response to a final question from a family member. I shook the mother’s hand and turned to walk away. Everyone’s expression was one of relief. It’s an every day diagnosis and procedure for us; for them, it’s quite possibly the scariest thing to have happen to a love one.

Except it wasn’t.

“I think I know you,” I heard when my back was already turned. “Do you take care of people in car crashes?” It was a timid inquiry.

“Yes, I am an acute care surgeon. I do trauma and emergency general surgery.”

“You think you took care of my daughter. Years ago. She died in a car crash. She…”

I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for that mother to be back in that hospital, back in a bland waiting room with fluorescent lights illuminating my face again. I simply can’t. But, I had a crystal clear memory of that morning. Nothing was left to the imagination that day. Nothing needed to be discerned by the powers of radiation vectors.

It was a long time ago. Still, the image of that poor girl, a life I could not save, a body badly mangled by someone going the wrong way at highway speeds, was seared in my brain. It was truly horrific. The bodily damage was unlike I had ever seen before. My boss with more than 30 years more experience was there too. Neither had he.

“…Thank you for everything you did. You were so kind to us. You told us she didn’t suffer. You let us wail and you held us. We never said thank you.”

“Yes, I remember,” I gulped. I felt a lump in my throat, a tear in my eye.

CPR was in progress upon arrival. There was nothing to do but be kind. Words of gratitude were neither needed nor expected. It’s what we do. However, the reminder that families are grateful when we tell them we removed a vestigial organ without incident or when we deliver the soul-crushing news that their child is dead was deeply appreciated. For the lives we cannot save, with kindness and empathy we can at least spare those left behind from just a little bit of suffering in the midst of so much agony.

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Grief

I have been waiting for a moment of joy in the profession that did not involve death to write again. It turns out that those moments are few and far between and I feel compelled to write a few words today. Writing, sharing, letting out the feelings I must keep at bay when I am with my patients and their families is therapeutic. 

Bearing witness to physical pain and emotional suffering is part of the job. The opportunity to ameliorate the body’s failure and to transcend the soul’s response are part of the allure of the work of surgeons, in particular trauma surgeons like myself. A good day at work for me–a day when I get to flex my life saving muscle and bask in the glory of my critical care prowess–is a bad day for anyone on the receiving end of my clinical skills and empathy, no matter what the outcome.

No one wakes up expecting to be at the center of a human tragedy. Yet, as trauma surgeons we are thrust into a peripheral role in such tragedies daily. In my typical week on service (a few nights on call, 7 days of rounding, two clinics, and reams of accumulating paperwork) the balance of patients with minor injuries, good outcomes, or major life saves typically outweigh those with severe life-threatening injuries at risk of high morbidity and mortality.  But this has been an atypical week.

These last 6 days have been filled with inexplicable events and unimaginable losses for my patients and their families. Car crashes, suicide, house fires, occupational hazards, animal attacks, physical abuse, interpersonal violence. The causes have been varied. The effects have been a river of tears flowing through a mountain of grief. The landscape of sorrow created by these tragedies has exhausted me far more than the overnights and the ~110 hours logged in the effort to provide round the clock trauma care.

As surgeons, we hope not to grow too used to it, not to become cold and unfeeling in the face of human tragedy. But we need some way to move on. This week, I feel buoyed by gratitude of surviving family members and the supportive words from fellow providers. The warm embrace and patience of those who love me and care for me during those few hours away from work have also helped. But with one more day to go, I am simply wishing for a quiet last day on service devoid of human tragedy. No more bravado in the trauma bay. No more delivering bad news. No more grief for the people in my catchment area. We all need a break.

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The Final Chapter

He had loved her with all his being for more than 6 decades. In the last 2 years of their 61 year marriage, he had watched helplessly as dementia wrapped its noose around her, slowly tightening its grip on her mind and pulling her away from him.

When I met him I knew the injury was irrecoverable. Her brain was consumed by hemorrhage that had filled the space (cerebral atrophy) left behind by progressive dementia and then some, deflecting the midline between the two hemispheres nearly 12mm.

I asked him what had happened. She had tripped and fallen. For all her mind’s frailty, her body was still strong and agile for her 83 years; how she stumbled in the small living room they had shared for more than 50 years remained a mystery.

She was still breathing on her own but her brainstem’s ability to preserve this vital function was succumbing quickly to the pressure building from above. She appeared to be peacefully sleeping. He had not yet grasped that she would not be waking up.

I asked him what life was like at home before today. She was no longer aware of who, what, when, where, and how. A nurse would came daily to help her bathe and dress. She would then spend most of her day in a trusty old recliner. He would cook and feed her, then put her to bed every evening. They had no children. They had outlived their siblings.

Theirs was a story of two lifelong friends and lovers. Every Sunday he would take her for a drive. He wanted her to see the sun and the trees and the world outside their home. This was romance in the denouement of life. And here I was, suddenly a supporting character in the final chapter of their love story.

He cried quietly as I explained the magnitude of the injury. Like too many of my octogenarian patients, she had no advanced directives. None of the providers who knew her far better than I had thought a discussion of code status was worthy it seems. So this was my role.

We talked for a long while. After reviewing what all the technology in my critical care armamentarium might do and not do for the love of his life he said to me, “I don’t know I what will do without her. I don’t know any other life. I don’t have anyone else.”

His heartache was palpable.

There was surprise and some expression of dismay at the administrative hassle I caused when I planned to send her home with hospice services directly from the ER that day. I am grateful for the ER physicians, nurses, and social workers who helped me execute that plan even though itt would have been far more convenient for us to simply admit her to the floor.

That she would die peacefully in her home of five decades with her partner of six by her side is the kind of medical outcome that looks poor on paper but feels good to the surgeon’s soul.

 

 

 

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Ski Practice

To her it was like any other day. She had dropped him off, as was their usual routine, and gone into the city to see a friend.

He was an experienced member of the ski team. Practice was familiar. Take the lift up, ski down. Take the life up, slalom down. Take the life up…

It all happened quickly. He slipped through rail of the lift. The impact on the cold, hard packed snow was devastatingly complete. Perhaps it was his head, or maybe his spine, but vital functions were cut off immediately; he went into cardiac arrest. The ski patrol started CPR. Someone alerted dad. He arrived almost as quickly as the paramedics. They intubated him with efficiency and continues advanced cardiac life support.

He arrived as my patient immobilized with a long spine board and a cervical collar. He was intubated and CPR was ongoing. He had lost vitals signs at least 20 minutes ago. Dad was by his side as he rolled into the trauma bay. We kept coding him for the next 45 minutes. His pupils were blown. His skull base was boggy. We knew it was futile but he was someone’s child. It was hard to let go. But we did.

When I told dad, he was alone. He had not grasped the magnitude of on-going CPR and was utterly shocked when I told him his son was dead. My lip was quivering as I delivered the crushing news; my tears followed soon after he began to sob.

He asked me to call his wife. I told her it was serious and to arrive quickly but safely. Her grief is something that I will forever hold with me. I cried with her too. And, though it was not the first, nor would it be the last, time, that I would cry with a family experiencing sudden loss, my ability to be with these parents–REALLY BE WITH THEM–at the darkest moment of their lives reminded me, somewhat paradoxically, of the joys of my profession.