Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How Doctors Die

I found out the other day that Dr. A passed away recently.
It has been close to 10 years since I was under his tutorage, but he was one of those you never forget. He was a physician in the pulmonary and critical care division, and I spent several months working with him, first as an intern, then as a senior resident in the ICU.
I recall my first few days in the medical intensive care. It was a harrowing place, bright, sterile lights with just 24 rooms. And despite that, you hear alarms of all sorts going off periodically.
I remember seeing my first few codes there. I remember seeing that patient literally die, there in the ICU, when he developed a fatal pneumothorax, and despite the efforts by the surgeons, he slipped away. To this day, on a bad night, I still get flashbacks/nightmares of that night (yes, I realize I probably have some component of PTSD).
Yes, the ICU was a scary place to be. Yet, under the supervision of Dr. A, we never felt alone. It was overwhelming and intimidating initially, but having such a patient and cool teacher, we interns eventually built up confidence and developed our skills. While some of the very Type A consultants had a way of putting us down, that was never Dr. A's style. You knew you messed up when he calmly responded, "Hmm, that's interesting..". It usually meant you should've done something differently, that you needed to brush up on something. Yet he never yelled or shamed you. From a green, scared intern, I remember becoming the (more) confident resident, putting in my central lines unsupervised when we had multiple coding patients and my fellow was with another patient.
I also learnt that Dr. A was a dirty liar when he modestly said he was a 'beginner' squash player when he invited me for a game that one evening. I got trashed.
After a long battle with metastatic lung cancer (he was never a smoker), he finally got to rest. I found out after receiving that email.
It makes me recall that blogpost I read recently. How Doctors Die. It makes me think about Dr. A, who after his diagnosis continued to care for patients and continued his teaching responsibilities. I think about Buddy, who despite having been diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer- and being an oncologist he knew- this was not going to be a curable disease- he decided to continue seeing patients and complete his subspecialty training and finally graduating after 7 years of postgraduate medical training, thousands of miles from home. Instead of throwing in the towel and saying "the hell with it, I'm going home to spend my remaining days with family".
Is this how doctors die? That, despite the common misconception that we're all in it for the money, that perhaps our job, our patients, our responsibilities, really mean that much to us? That, outside of caring for someone else, our lives carry very little other meaning and that this is pretty much all we know?
That we sacrifice so much for this lifestyle, that sometimes we don't know how to stop and literally work till we're dead?
Or is it because this is truly our calling, our passion?
I'd like to think so. And I know that the hordes of doctors who were Dr. A's students, the hundreds he has trained over the years, the many he has touched, would think that of him as well.
Farewell Dr. A. You will be missed.


Anonymous Shaun Kwong said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got teary when you reminds me of your buddy......

11:24 PM  
Blogger vagus said...

Yes, I get teary eyed sometimes too when I think of him....

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Shaun Kwong said...

Can any doctor step up, live a long, I mean a really long fruitful life, then show us how to do it too? RIP Dr. A.

6:03 PM  

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