Lesson from a Dying Patient
Recently on a Friday at 7:50pm, just 10 minutes before we close, a severely thin 37-year-old woman in a wheelchair entered the clinic. She was being brought in by her 12-year-old daughter.
I reviewed the chart before I entered the room. It read, “Chief Complaint: needs oxygen.” Having never seen her before, I thought she must be a smoker who just needs oxygen at home, a sadly common situation we see.
Having worked close to 55 hours that week I was tired and ready to go home. Nevertheless, I put a smile on my face, knocked on the door and greeted the patient and her daughter. As I started asking about her medical history and living situation, I was astounded by her heart-breaking journey and profoundly touched by the lesson this terminally ill woman would teach me that night.
She told me that four years ago she contracted a rare lung infection. Now her right lung was completely “eaten out.” Her left lung was on its way to also being destroyed. A year and a half ago, more than four top specialists told her there was no treatment for her, and that she only had around a year to live.
Now, acutely short of breath, she was asking for oxygen at home.
She spoke softly with an occasional smile. Between every two or three sentences she would stop, and with much laboring took as deep of a breath as she could. She only weighed 79 pounds. She said her lack of stamina was intense. She was dying, unable to breathe well nor eat well because of nausea. Yet throughout my conversation with her she had a radiant glow and peace about her.
Behind the patient sat her 12-year-old daughter quietly listening to the conversation, not making much eye contact with me. I sensed a very deep strength in her.
I asked the patient, “Who takes care of you?” She pointed to her daughter! And she said, “I know it is not fair to her.” Her daughter kindly and promptly responded, “Yes. It is fair.”
I then inquired, “Do you have family? Sister, brother, parents?” She said, “Yes, but they are all away.” She continued, “I do have a husband, but he works all the time. He just checked out.” I just looked at her, stunned. She continued, “Well, who can blame him? A few years back he had a spunky, sexy wife walking around. Now it’s all gone.”
I was just taken aback by such a painful situation! I asked her, “How are you handling all of this? How do you keep such a good attitude?” She said calmly, “It’s not about a good attitude. It’s that I am blessed.”
“Blessed?” I thought. How can she say that? She is in a sad, hopeless situation!
She continued, “I am blessed. Look behind me,” pointing to her daughter. “She is amazing.” To which her daughter immediately responded, “Thank you, mom.”
“I have a roof over my head,” she said. “And also, there are so many people that have it worse than I have. I AM BLESSED.”
Now this terminally ill woman was skin and bones, nauseated, unable to breathe, having to endure the thought of death, the pain of having her young daughter care for her, and a husband who has detached from their reality. I thought, not too many people can have it worse than her.
But she thought there were!
How can she have such grace, such calm, such peace?
I spent the time I needed to care for her as best as I could. I gave her and her daughter a hug. Then, I closed the clinic and went home for the night. But I could not sleep.
I could not but ponder and think about what this wonderful lady brought home to me that night. She illuminated so many realities we sometimes avoid as humans – the brevity of our existence, the fragility of our bodies, the vulnerability of humanity, the cruelty of life, the power of love, the beauty of grace, the magnitude of gratitude, the vitality of compassion, and the futility of “success.”
Yet, the biggest impact she made on me was her comment – “I am blessed.”
I kept thinking to myself, how many times have I said, truly meant and basked in the knowledge that…“I am blessed?”
That night, I had a quiet renewing of the spirit and recommitment, not as a doctor, but as a human being to…
Be thankful in everything. Have gratitude for what I have. Be humble in success. Be graceful in defeat. Be patient in failure. Help those in need. Be kind to all.
As leaders, sometimes we think we are so important. Or, we aim to become so important…
May we remember that we are nothing but flesh and blood. And a soul.
May we remember that what we have we can lose; what we get we can lose; what we know we can lose.
May we be grateful in all, patient with all, and loving to all.
And just as my terminally ill patient taught me that night – this young mother, now dying in the prime of her life – may we know that whatever we go through…
WE ARE TRULY BLESSED!
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