In my experience with heart failure, my treatment relies on getting the right meds, diet and fluid and exercise advice, as well as monitoring and assessing symptoms through a variety of pesky but necessary tests. But despite these life-enabling, life-extending measures, I think there is one important factor that trumps all of those treatment facets. What I am referring to is what used to be referred to by the term “bedside manner”. This term relates to the restorative, soothing manner that doctors assume towards their patients.
I seem to have spent a significant amount of time with medical professionals since my life-changing encounter with heart failure over five years ago. But in early November, my 93-year old mother began an extended hospital stay that expanded my exposure to health care professionals across the spectrum. So this post pays homage to those wonderful professionals I have met as a result of my chronic condition and my Mom's illnesses, and to demonstrate what separates those who are "practicing" medicine from those with a true vocation for the art of healing.
Let me be clear, a doctor that is “practicing” medicine can be efficient, learned and technically adept at procedures. But in my opinion the doctor who carefully listens to each patient, carefully, responds in an honest but empathetic fashion, tailors the treatment to the patients overall circumstances and speaks to the patient with compassion filled eyes, well this is the doctor who has a bedside manner that is both healing and heartening.
Here are just a few examples of what I mean. The first is my heart failure doctor. He is a gifted surgeon who performs heart transplants. But he is also is very down-to-earth and empathetic. There have been a number of times when I know that I have been less than articulate in describing the symptoms that were causing concern to me, or even causing me anxiety. But he has always listened patiently and carefully, and never rushes me as I ramble on. He always makes me feel that I am his most important patient, even though I know that he has a busy schedule. He has said to me that when something bothers me enough that I want to discuss it, he knows he has to listen because there is likely an issue we need to address together as a team.
Then there is my cardiologist. He is my age (early 60s), but it doesn’t sound like he has plans to retire anytime soon. This is because he enjoys, and has a talent, for passing on to future generations of doctors the art of listening and eliciting critical information from a patient. I remember he told me that sometimes younger doctors will consult him because a patient has reached out and for a prescription to help them sleep. He patiently schools them in the art of performing due diligence. This means discussing other symptoms the patient might have because maybe something like shortness of breath during sleep is the cause of the sleep disruption. This in turn could be causing the anxiety. So they need to treat the shortness of breath, which may well be the caused by an underlying heart problem. In other words, sometimes being a curious doctor and asking probing questions can be as good a diagnostic tool as any medical test science can create.
My electrophysiologist will always stand out in my memory based on my very first appointment with him. He had reviewed my holter monitor results, and very patiently and thoroughly reviewed them with me. Basically, my heart rate would plummet to basement level for extended periods of time. He watched my reactions as he very compassionately said: "I think you would feel a lot better if we could implant a pacemaker in you." But it wasn’t just the words that he pronounced. It was the way he looked into my eyes, and held my gaze. I knew that he could relate to the life draining lethargy that had invaded my life.
He could imagine the hell that I experienced but he also had something to lift me out of the depths of the hellish fatigue and despair and back into a stable, fulfilling life again. I will remember the compassion that filled his eyes forever and it is a memory that has served to fill me with hope through some very frustrating heart failure episodes.
My Mother’s recent extended hospital stay was brightened by many messengers of mercy in the form of a number of doctors who treated her for at least four different conditions. Let me state the obvious. it is hard to watch the hospitalization of an elderly patient, one who just wants to be back in familiar surroundings, watch life unfold around her, and avoid being prodded and checked for various things. As a family, we understood that and one of us was with my Mom at all times. But it was hard on us because we were only bystanders to the medical treatment.
Fortunately, the doctors who treated her for the various conditions were all what I would refer to as healers. They all recognized that her age was an important factor in her treatment and so a goal was to avoid any treatments that could tax a 40 year old, much less an elderly patient, unless absolutely necessary. One of the doctors was my age, and he has a Mom who had recently had been in the hospital. He knew what it was like to be in our shoes watching on the sidelines while our Mom was being treated.
Some of these doctors had daily practices but would show up before the crack of dawn to tend to the hospital patients. I was appreciative, and frankly in awe, of their dedication. But more important, I was grateful for their instincts and their commitment to take into account a patient’s circumstances as a whole and not just an organ or a symptom.
After Mom returned to her retirement facility, my family became grateful for those doctors who also see the healing equation as involving more than just the care of the patient. It is the care of the family and caregivers that can also place healing doctors on a higher level. This was well demonstrated by the geriatric physician at Mom's retirement facility when our family realized that Mom's elderly body was in a significant decline, despite the great healing medical care she had recently received. She would hardly eat or drink.
On Thanksgiving Day, my family met with the geriatric doctor at the facility. He did not come to meet us till early afternoon, but this is because he wanted to see his patients first because he knew we would have a lot of questions and he wanted to have ample time to answer them. He was very direct and honest, but also had that compassionate aura about him that I have come to appreciate. I attribute his manner to the fact that he was also trained in hospice. He told us that her body organs had already begun to shut down, and that is why she was not eating or drinking. He said that forcing her to eat would cause her GI system to overload.
He answered each and every question in detail, to include how long he thought she might be on this earth. He said it was a matter of days or weeks. Actually, days was correct. She passed away peacefully on the Monday after Thanksgiving. After the doctor pronounced her dead, he hugged us and offered his sympathy, and you could tell it was truly heartfelt sympathy and that he was sad to lose our Mom as a patient.
I then had an appointment with my heart failure doctor on Wednesday. I told two of the nurses there – who I have also known for years – about my Mom’s death. They both hugged me. And the nurse assigned to my case for the day told my doctor. When he came in he looked me deep in the eyes, gave me a big hug, and listened as I recounted the events of my Mom’s passing. Technically I only pay for medical care. But I got a big dose of empathy and compassion that I will never, ever forget.
The bottom line is that when you run across the healing doctors I have described in this post, you need to keep them in your phone’s contacts lists for as long as possible! Also watch carefully the staffs in the offices and hospitals of these doctors. You will see nurses and other medical technicians who are extraordinarily gifted, observant and inspiring. But that is Part II of this post, to be published at a later date!
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.