June 15, 2016

When a Simple Thank You is Not Enough

I was young, just 22 years old.  New home, new city, new pregnancy and I needed a new doctor.  A friend made a suggestion and said I would really like her.  I went in nervous and unsure for that first appointment.  I was not just choosing a doctor to deliver our baby.  Because I wanted a family practice doctor, I was choosing the person who would hopefully care for my whole family for years to come.  She greeted me with a big smile, a firm handshake, and warmth.  I knew at that very moment this was the doctor for us and I never looked back.  That first appointment was almost exactly 13 years ago.

We saw her for everything.  I grew to trust her and she grew to know, understand, and believe me when I had things to say.  She walked the road of pregnancy with me many times over.  When life ended so soon after it had begun, a card appeared in the mail with her handwriting and kind words.  When I came back in announcing new life, she celebrated and took time out of her busy day to discuss my adjustment to loss.  When that next baby let out his first cry she was right there celebrating with us and I think there may have been tears.  When we found out that new life was going to be two instead of the expected one, she was the one with the ultrasound wand in her hand and had the joy of announcing it to me.  That day she continued probing around and I asked why.  She said she was looking for a third.  I told her two was great but don’t find a third! We laughed.  When those two babies came and ended up in the NICU, she walked into my room, pulled up a chair, and asked me how I was doing.  She visited long as if she had nowhere else to be – but I knew better.

When the kids really multiplied, she was never frustrated with the whole lot of us showing up for appointments even when there were five, all six and under, and we were a crazy mess.  She spoke to each one, treated each with kindness, and gave each that same listening ear she had always offered to me.  When there were tears she patiently waited.  When they wanted to see the stethoscope one more time, she showed them.  When they needed Mom AGAIN, she understood. 

Four different times we had kids hospitalized.  She was there every single time always comforting, always calm, always kind, always assuring and checking on my needs too.  Boy number four ended up in the ER for 7 hours and eventually hospitalized but the diagnosis was uncertain.  Our faithful doctor was out of town for the weekend.  Those first two days drug by and we were greatly troubled with the care we were getting and the lack of answers.  I told my husband that we just needed to hold out for Monday because our doctor would be back, she would walk in, pull up a chair, listen to everything I had to say, and then things would happen and we would be in good hands.  That is exactly what happened – and I was able to rest easy despite the great illness. 

We were always in good hands.  There was always a listening ear, always a thorough examination, and never a demeaning word or spirit.  Her laughter was rich, her words always sincere, her body language never said she was in a hurry despite countless responsibilities  All of that was true even though she worked long hours day in and day out.   I saw her making rounds at the hospital early and late, at the clinic all day, and I knew she made visits to elderly people who couldn’t get out.  She didn’t see patients, she saw people.  She didn’t see a diagnosis, she saw needs and questions she could help answer.  It wasn’t a job but a life of loving, serving, and caring for people.

As I was driving to see her today, I reflected back on the loss of a dear friend involved in our ministry for many, many years.  She shared the same doctor with us and also thought highly of her.  I hadn’t been able to attend that funeral but my husband had and so had our doctor.  On this day I thought about how much doctors give and how much they need encouragement.  I thought I would bring an encouraging word regarding this dear friend.  Toward the end of my visit I mentioned how sorry I was that I wasn’t able to attend that funeral.  She expressed deep gratitude that my husband had paid tribute to her (our doctor) during that service.  I told her how dear that friend had been to us and how thankful we were that she had been our friend’s doctor.  I thanked her for her wonderful care of our friend, said how highly our friend thought of her even to mention her in her Christmas letter, and then I told her she has meant a great deal to our family as well.

I had no way of knowing that visit would end with the news that within two weeks she would be gone and not by her choosing.  Life took a hard twist.  I was at a loss for words.  I stared into the teary face of this woman who had come to mean so much to me and to my family.  I had hardly ever talked with her outside the clinic or the hospital, but somehow in the grind and challenges of life, in the highs and lows, in new life and in death, she had become more than just a doctor. She had become an ally in the confusing world of medicine, a confidante when things were uncertain, a listener when there were concerns, an encourager when life was weighty, a help in trouble, and most of all a friend.  How does one properly put all of that into words in the face of such shocking news?  How does one explain what another person has meant to them in 13 years of growing trust and relationship? How can a person really wrap up all those years and all those experiences in a few simple sentences while overcome with emotion?  I couldn’t find a way.  I mostly held my tears so as not to make the moment harder.  I stumbled through an, “I am so very sorry and you have meant so much to our family over the years.”  Not nearly sufficient.

I cried my way home, sad over her loss.  She gave 20 years serving and loving people.  I cried over my loss.  I cried over how a person who had given so much could be dismissed so simply with no good explanation.  I felt awful that I didn’t say more in that moment but I couldn’t get past the lump in my throat and the tears stinging my eyes.  So, I sat down to write.  It was the best way I knew to pay tribute and to say thank you. 

To my doctor:  Thank you for loving and caring about each individual in my family.  Thank you for never making assumptions but always being thorough and seeking the right answers.  Thank you for being there with us celebrating the joys and mourning the losses.  Thank you for not just being a doctor seeing patients, but rather being a friend who always saw people.  My family will be forever grateful.  I can only hope those students you have taught over the years took careful note of how you dealt with people as well as your knowledge and skill in medicine and will each turn out to be even half the doctor you have been.  If they do, the world of medicine will be a better place, patients will be in wonderful hands, and people will be richly blessed like I and my family have been by you.