A few weeks ago, its was 6:30 am and I was playing tennis. One of the front desk staff came down, “There is a woman on the phone who said there is an emergency and they need your help.” I will be honest. I panicked a little. My husband was home sleeping as were my four children. Were they injured or in trouble? I raced up the stairs to grab the phone.
A young woman was crying and saying her mom was asking to speak to me. I still could not figure out who was on the phone. Who knew I was here, now, at this time of the morning? “It’s Mary's daughter." J explained her brother was very sick, in a hospital out of state. Her mom was so upset and she kept asking to speak to me; I was the only one who could help.
M had been a co-worker of sorts when I was a medical student 20 years ago. She was a home-visit nurse at our local health department. I had spent the summer of 1996 accompanying her on home visits in some of the most impoverished parts of my hometown as part of a research project. More than a decade later, the program was cut due to funding and she was laid off, I jumped at the chance to have her work as a nurse in our private practice. She no longer works for us and had returned to a career in home-visiting but was still a good friend.
I called her at home and she was sobbing to the point I could not understand her. I asked to speak with her husband. He got on the phone and said their son was very ill and lying in an ICU with kidney failure. Their daughter-in-law had contacted them but could not relay the exact details of his illness. “Please call the hospital and help us find out more, so we know what to do.” I doubted I could help them; I did not think the hospital would even talk to me. I told them I would do my best.
I thought about their son’s chart in my office. I had just shredded it two weeks ago, because it had been more than a decade since I had last seen him and he was in his thirties now. I take care of his son, who I know well and is a young teenager now. I thought of him and what this loss would mean as I dialed the number and asked to speak with the ICU nurse. She came to the phone. I explained that I had been her patients primary care physician and family friend for 20 years; I wanted to know his clinical status so I could inform them. She told me he was critically ill, they were doing everything they could to keep him alive. She was not sure he was going to make it the next few hours, let alone days.
I told her I would speak to his parents and tell them to get on a plane. She hesitated and said “I am not sure they should be told he could die at any moment.” I told her there was no one better to relay that kind of message. I realized that relationships with the families we treat can continue long after these children grow up and become parents themselves. After 15 years in practice, I have more than a dozen parents I treated as children and now they are bringing their children to see me. This is such a great blessing but also a grind on my heart in times like these.
As I dialed Mary's number, my thoughts turned to my own brother who had died in an accident 8 years before. I remember that phone call like it was yesterday. I remember the crushing blow the moment I was told. I had watched my parents lose their son. I know what this family may experience today, tomorrow, or next week. This was different, their son was alive and still had a chance. “Your son is critically ill and may die today. I am so sorry. The best thing I can tell you at this moment is to get on the first plane possible and go see him. I hope you can make it while he is still alive and have a chance to say goodbye, if that is what is to happen.” They thanked me. I got off the phone and sat in my car crying in the parking lot of the tennis club.
Their son did make it through, though he has a long recovery ahead of him. It is during these moments where a pediatrician can realize our job is not always to diagnose, treat disease, or cure. Sometimes it is to ease the suffering of others whenever we can and truly understand our role in the lives of the human beings for whom we have cared. It is something to treasure.