Friday, April 13, 2007
On Death. Two.
We went to New York a few years ago, mainly to see a production of "The Iceman Cometh." Expecting to be impressed by Kevin Spacey in the lead role (we were!), I was blown away by Paul Giamatti's portrayal of Jimmy Tomorrow. Near the end he gave a soliloquy of such pain, his emotions naked and raw, that I was moved to tears. So was he. Afterwards, among other things I was left to ponder was what it must be like -- how is it possible? -- to do that night after night, to tap into those feelings so deeply as to move himself to tears, repeatedly. Is it just acting, or is he there each time? Is it as cathartic to him as it was to me? Can he move others so, without moving himself? Is it exhilarating, or exhausting? Could it be neither? As an analogy, perhaps it's a bit off; yet that's what came to my mind in thinking of my role in the death of a patient. It's not that it's an act -- for me at least, it is anything but. Yet if there are courses in talking to patients and families about death, books about it, doesn't that mean that for some health-care professionals, dealing with terminal illness and death can be scripted? But having a script is not enough; there are bad actors and good ones. To make it happen takes more than intention. I was always there. But -- confessional -- I was also always aware. The meta medicine man. Maybe that's how to do it and survive.
I'm not doing the dying. Nothing in my position as physician is as hard as what the patient and family do. In trying to delve into this doctors-and-death subject, I don't pretend otherwise, and I accept that some might see the whole enterprise as a self-serving sympathy-fest. Perhaps. It's something I'm trying to understand, myself. But I see it as an important inquiry, involving pain, preservation, humanity in its essential good and bad. Fundamental. And if (some) doctors need to do a better job of it -- and if it's possible to get them to -- then at some level we're talking about teaching compassion. Which strikes me as bizarre, albeit necessary.
I vaguely recall some words in medical school about dealing with the dying. The term "healer" doesn't have only to apply to beating back disease: whether that's the exact message they were sending us or not, it seems to be what I took away. Such a message falls on fertile soil, or it doesn't. I don't think I needed to be told that continuing connection with the dying ought to be part of the job; on the other hand, there are plenty of ways to shirk it. And, for that matter, excuses. I have lots of patients that need me; there's no way to spend as much time with a dying patient and his/her family as they'd like. (It's true, of course. I've said that about anyone on whom I've operated: having literally been allowed in, it seems there ought to be an obligation to spend every waking hour with each one.) But it's amazing how little it really takes.
It's at this point that I hesitate in writing about death and doctors. For one, I'm hardly a source of wisdom; I'm no psychologist, no professor. Hell, I'm not even a primary care doc. For another, I'm afraid of it coming out wrong. When I talk about observing myself, I assume I'm not speaking for any other -- much less all -- doctors. If I say I was nice to people but was also aware I was being nice and telling myself how nice it was that I'm being nice, I'm trying to express and deal with the dichotomy I feel: does consciously behaving in a particular way diminish the behavior? A little compassion goes a long way. If you don't have it, fake it. But it's better if you have it.
If saying it doesn't automatically negate it, I believe I always had compassion for my patients; for their fears, for their pain, for living with illness. Or dying with it. It wasn't lack of feeling that I had to overcome; it was the acute sense of failure. If I had a problem looking dying patients and their families in the eye, it was because I felt I'd let them down, and that at some level they must have felt the same way. Guilty, and ashamed, is what I felt, as if an apology were in order. But how do you apologize for letting someone die? So it's in fact very complicated, and I don't intend (now, anyway) either to work through it or to try to understand it in terms of my own upbringing or makeup. As opposed to the author of the book I'll be reviewing (as I mentioned in my previous post), I think doctors' problems over dealing with death have not to do with threats to their own mortality, but with shame. And maybe that explains, in part, my sense of self-observation: in talking with a dying patient or her/his family, I was looking over my own shoulder, accusingly.
Facing the dying and their families can -- and must -- be done. I have, in fact, said I'm sorry. Many times. I suppose the meaning was deliberately vague: in this context, "sorry" means sad more than it implies apology. But it's the word I used. "I'm so sorry this is happening." I know I didn't always speak the truth, but danced around it. If a patient didn't ask if he/she was dying, I didn't always bring it up, and I probably should have. Somehow I'd at least mention that we'd come to a critical juncture and whereas we were going to continue to strive for and hope for the best, plans ought to be made for the worst. Meaning "getting affairs in order." But when they did ask, the answer was yes. And then we'd talk: I'd wait to see what they had to say, or ask what they'd like to say. I'd assure them that I could keep pain away. And sometimes -- both because I meant it and because I assumed they'd like to hear it -- I'd say how much I cared about them and that I'd remember them and the effect they'd had on me. When tears came they were real. But I also noted it in some lizardly part of my brain, and then chided myself for noting it. Was I just a damn phony? If tossing and turning at night over dying patients meant it wasn't phony, it wasn't. But I also slept.
Families need to know things. They often ask, when a patient is unresponsive, if that person can hear them. "I'm sure he's not in pain," I'd tell them. "But at some level I've always thought that there's comfort from hearing a voice. So talk to him. Tell him about your day or remind him about your life together. I think it makes a difference. Touch him. I think he'll know." Where's the harm in that? Waiting rooms outside of intensive care are painful places. I could leave the ICU and turn right to avoid them; or left to see the family and friends. In a hurry often, I turned right. But at least once a day I turned left. And sat down (there was a private gathering-room as well into which we'd go for some discussions). It can be frustrating, especially when people keep showing up and asking the same questions, but in fact a lot can be done in only a few minutes. It goes without saying that it's part of the job: but in the ICU there are a lot of doctors involved. Some surgeons I know leave the talking to the intensivists. As painful as it can sometimes be, had I not participated, I'd have felt much worse.
And that's the point: avoiding the dying and their people may seem easier than connecting, but it's a huge mistake. A surgeon can rationalize: my job is to operate and give the best post op care I can. They have other doctors for the other stuff. But it's amazing what sitting down and holding a hand can do for the person attached to each hand. Rightly or wrongly -- I truly don't know -- for me there was a sense of absolution.