After a long labor, I watched the first-time mother give one last push fully expelling her first-born child. The labor had been so long and difficult that the patient was joined by the labor nurse and the doctor in the throngs of exhaustion. But as I wiped the baby and lay this precious new life on the mother’s belly, I heard not just the cry of a baby, but also the muted cry of someone standing behind me.
Earlier in my career I had hosted medical students from a nearby osteopathic medical school. This particular month I had a delightful female student shadow me. She, too, was exhausted from the long labor, and when she witnessed the birth of this baby, the first birth she had ever witnessed, it proved overwhelming for her and she began to cry. Our eyes met as I turned to see who was crying behind me, and she tried even harder to hide her tears. When we walked outside into the hallway, she apologized to me for crying. I put my arm around her and told her that I never wanted her to hide the tears and emotions of compassion and empathy from her patients; that these traits are what would make her a genuinely great physician. Over the years, she has never forgotten this encounter; nor have I.
It doesn’t take much for me to cry. Ask our daughters. It seems I cannot even watch Nemo’s father at the end of the movie allow Nemo to leave the sea anemone alone; or in the movie Wonder, when Augie’s father removes Augie’s space helmet and says to his son, “You are my son, and you are beautiful, and I want to look at my son.” (This was just one of many moments that made me cry watching Wonder.) But these examples are the tears of a father, and not as a doctor.
Looking back at a career in medicine, specifically obstetrics and gynecology, there have been a few moments that come immediately to the forefront of my memory. There were many times of what I would refer to as “doing heart surgery” where my staff and office full of patients would wait patiently for me to finish an appointment where I was speaking more to a patient’s heart than addressing her diagnosis. One such appointment was when I was meeting with a young patient who was at the end of her fight with a horrible and painful cancer. As a Christian she continued to pray for healing, but had reached a point of realization that without an incredible miracle, that this cancer was going to take her life. But like in the story of Daniel in the Old Testament, she would walk through this praising God for being God, and for being a good and loving God. Hearing her say this, I pulled open my laptop in the examination room and asked her to watch a video made by Shane & Shane. Here is the link so you can watch: https://youtu.be/qyUPz6_TciY.
Fortunately, she was the last patient of the day, and after she left the office, I went into my private office and sobbed. I cried because of the apparent injustice of such a beautiful young woman dying of cancer; a woman of incredible courage; a mother; a wife. I cried because there was nothing I could do as a doctor; as a healer; to heal her. And then I cried again as I sat at her funeral, listening to her friends and relatives eulogize her beautiful life.
But this example, like most, was a time when I cried in private. My office staff probably heard me in my office crying, but they left me alone in my grief. Looking back over my career, however, there have been some memorable and moving times where my crying did not occur behind closed doors, but rather quite publicly.
Nine years ago today, on April 13, 2009, a baby boy was born who was given a middle name that was one of my middle names. This little life would not be long in this world, as his lifespan was measured in minutes rather than decades. His story is what prompted me to write this blog today. His parents asked for me to eulogize their son, and so I set out to write a eulogy about the meaning of each of his three given names. A week later, in a church filled to capacity, I looked out over the sea of people who had come to support this baby boy’s family. As he was the son of a police officer, half of the room was filled with police officers and their spouses. I began to weave my way through the eulogy, tying together the names this couple had given their son, and bringing to light the significance of his names. But nearly halfway through the eulogy, my throat swelled, and tears flowed freely down my face. My eyes connected with the eyes of the pastor who was sitting several rows behind the parents. His lips moved and I recognized what he was saying, “Would you like for me to finish?” These seven words were gladly received, and we traded positions; he at the pulpit, and me seated behind the parents. This brilliant pastor had seen where I was going, and as if planned this way, he skillfully wove the eulogy to completion in a manner that was far better than I could have done. As a doctor, I couldn’t save the life of this baby boy, and because of my grief, I could not even finish his eulogy.
The last time that I cried for a patient was yesterday.
After having spoken to the family of a sudden and very unexpected loss, I sat alone in the counselling room and finished drafting the medical report. As I finished the last line of the report, another doctor who had helped me walked back into the room and sat silently across from me. I closed the chart and set down my pen and walked across the room and sat next to her. Seeing her tears caused the tears rimming my eyes to flow freely down my face. We sat together, prayed together, and she shared some insight into her own grieving for patients that is not for me to share. But here in this tiny room in this corner of the world sat two doctors reeling from the events of the day. It was a solemn moment; a beautiful moment; a moment that would be conducive to the healing of two healers’ hearts.
My brain wants to spiritualize this message; or to have some profound conclusion to it, but my heart says to just come quickly to a period at the end of the sentence and be finished. You can draw you own conclusion, and perhaps that is best.
Has a doctor ever cried with you?
Have you ever seen a doctor in a professional setting weep openly?
Were they tears of joy?
Were they tears of sorrow?
Please share your thoughts with me, either publicly or privately. I would love to hear from you.