7 ways to honor lost patients

As I mentioned last week, it's not unusual for me to sit at my laptop prepared to offer some practical yet generic advice on a safe, impersonal topic and wind up sharing a deeply personal story with more than 20,000 individuals I've never met.

Aptly foreshadowed, this is one of those times.

Seven years ago today, my older brother lost his battle with leukemia. As anyone who's ever experienced grief will tell you, time doesn't actually make it any easier. Every year that passes, I just miss him more. But the way that missing and wishing and hurt affect me has evolved over time, bringing healing a little closer, a little bit at a time.

Taking advice from a good friend, I chose to replace this year's 'sadiversary' with a renewed commitment to honor my brother's memory. One of the best ways I can think to do this--and benefit you as readers at the same time--is to provide you with a list of reminders for ways you can honor those of your patients who are no longer physically present in your office. Regardless of how or when these patients passed away, my guess is that each of them left you with some kind of lesson, some kind of intangible gift.

Here, from the bottom of a still-healing heart, are my ideas for how you can repay those gifts:

  1. Listen. Your ears are your most powerful medical instrument. End of story.
  2. Laugh. Cliched or not, life is short. Make time to smile, even if gently at the expense of your patients.
  3. Ask about faith. It's a coincidence that one of our top stories this week discusses the topic of physicians and faith. Or maybe it's not; there were other news stories I could have picked. But my candid advice is this. If faith is something you're comfortable talking about, do take the step to ask patients what role it plays in their lives, especially in very serious or potentially terminal situations. My brother was a person of extremely strong faith, and I'm here to tell you that he still had a myriad of questions and fears about the other side of death toward the end. All I could do at the time was listen and love, but having someone more competent to discuss such matters, maybe especially a doctor, could have been quite powerful.
  4. Pay attention to the little things. As a disabled patient recently told Reuters Health with regard to how doctor's offices accommodate her wheelchair, small gestures, such as placing her in a slightly bigger corner exam room or having medical techs that have been trained in attending to people with disabilities go a long way toward making her more comfortable during her visits. I've written myself about the profound impact of employees' kindness toward my children has had on my husband's and my healthcare experience. Make sure your employees know they always have the green light to make someone's day a little easier or more pleasant.
  5. Show appreciation. Have you given this experiment I suggested last month a try? If not, do it today.
  6. Be brave with family members. There are several mental snapshots of my last hospital visit with my brother that I'll never forget, but one of the most indelible is the moment the on-staff psychologist, there to work with patients, asked me directly how I was coping. While facing this person I'd never met during a visit I was fairly sure would be my last, I didn't have much of an answer except for a stoic nod. But the fact that he made a point to look me in the eye and ask brings comfort to me to this day. Through that one small gesture, I know that my brother was in the hands of someone who understood, with someone who cared.
  7. Discuss end-of-life wishes. Nobody wants to have this conversation, not at 40, not at 100. But the fact is that all of your patients are mortal and the discussion needs to happen. Period.

I write this post in memory of the one person I've always admired most. But if I had to pick a runner-up for my appreciation, it would be all of you who dedicate your careers to healing, both before and after death. Thank you for all that you do, and for taking my layperson's advice to heart as you practice the art and science of medicine. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)

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