True Stories From The Front Lines Of Medicine
Patients die. It is a sad fact of life for all physicians, but particularly acute for us surgeons. When I operate on an individual, they have entrusted me with an incredibly personal, invasive, singular interaction; an interaction that is intense and unique. Like up to my elbows in their innards kind of intense and unique. As such, whenever one of my patients dies, it is a personal loss for me, a loss that one never really gets over. As I sit here, I can see the faces and hear the voices of literally scores of individuals, young and old, men and women, with whom I have sat, and held their hands, promised them that I’d do my very best for them, and watched as they died, despite my efforts and promises to the contrary. And then went to tell their husband, or wife, or father, or mother, or child that their loved one was dead, and I was sorry. It happens. For some reason that I’ve never figured out, though, only the nice patients die. The really irritating, obnoxious ones never die. Ever. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but one you probably shouldn’t share with your children.
About six years into my practice as a busy academic general surgeon, I saw an elegant, elderly gentleman in my office in consult, Mr. Smith. He was 81 years old and sharp as a tack, well spoken and funny. A recent colonoscopy performed to evaluate anemia had discovered a bulky cancer in his colon, just above the rectum. He was referred to me for surgery. I sat with him and explained the situation, the nature of the surgery that I recommended, the four or five days he’d probably need to spend in the hospital afterwards, the nature of his anticipated recovery. He was accompanied by his two adult children, who seemed more concerned and put off than their father; each of which asked appropriate and intelligent questions. I assured one and all that, despite the diagnosis and the gentleman’s age, I thought he should do well and had an excellent chance of being cured from his disease. We scheduled the operation.
The operation, like most, went very well. The tumor was indeed large but without invasion into adjoining organs or obvious metastasis. I successfully maneuvered the senior resident scrubbed with me away from cutting the ureters during the dissection. Blood loss was minimal, the tumor removed smoothly, the bowel’s continuity restored. The anesthesiologist was impressed with the old man’s resilience and heart, having turned not a hair throughout the procedure. As was common practice, however, I directed the residents to admit the gentleman postoperatively to the Surgical ICU, just to be on the safe side and monitor him closely. You learn quickly that the frail and elderly patients do very well if treated well, but they don’t take a joke very well. One complication, the kind that more robust patients will tolerate and overcome, will often lead to this type of patient leaving the hospital by way of the loading dock. So, the SICU for a day or two, just in case.
That operation had been my first of the day. I completed my list of surgery and donned a white coat over my scrubs to make evening rounds. I had already rounded early in the morning with the residents on all the inpatients on my service, so evening rounds were limited to those I had operated on earlier or that I felt would benefit from a second look before I went home for the evening. My last stop this evening was to the SICU to visit my nice, elderly patient from whom I had resected the colon tumor that morning. I entered his room to find the gentleman hooked up to all the usual devices, the monitors beeping happily. The patient was lying in the bed and appeared perfectly comfortable, his eyes open and staring at the ceiling. I smiled and greeted him by name, but he ignored me. I didn’t recall him being hard of hearing, but there was a lot of noise and distraction from all the machinery in the room, so I wasn’t surprised by this. I spoke more loudly, asking him how he was feeling and assuring him that the surgery had gone just as planned, that the tumor had been removed completely and without difficulty. He ignored me the whole time, continuing to stare at the ceiling. I grew quite concerned and finally shook him gently by the shoulder and called his name again more insistently until, finally, he took his eyes off the ceiling and looked at me. He smiled, recognizing me and acted like I had just arrived. I repeated that the surgery had gone well. He just nodded and went back to looking at the ceiling. This was starting to piss me off. I mean, come on, just a quick “Thanks, doc,” would do. A little acknowledgement of an effort well done, another life saved–though, of course, it’s just my job, you know, just what I humbly do each and every day.
“Mr. Smith, are you okay?” I finally asked, irritated. “Yeah, fine, doc,” he says, still not taking his eyes off the ceiling. “What are you looking at?” I finally ask, looking up and not seeing anything more interesting than faded ceiling tiles.
“Heaven,” he says, smiling.
“I’m sorry? What was that?”
“Heaven. See?” he says, pointing up. “I see heaven. And angels.” He’s smiling, goes back to ignoring me.
“Stacy!” I yell out the door. Mr. Smith’s ICU nurse, Stacy, comes running in.
“Something wrong, Dr. Geller?” She can see I’m upset.
“What did you give this guy?”
“Nothing, Dr. Geller. I was just in a few minutes before you, asked if he wanted something for pain. He said he was good, I didn’t give him anything.”
“You gave him Demerol, didn’t you, Stacy?” Demerol was notorious for giving elderly patients hallucinations.
“No, I didn’t, Dr. G. Why, what’s wrong?”
“Mr. Smith is looking at heaven up there,” I say, pointing. “And angels.”
“Yeah. Oh. Maybe you can check to see what they gave him down in Recovery, before he came up.”
“That was before noon, Dr. G. Don’t think they gave him Demerol. I’ll check, though. Anything else?”
“Yeah. Everything. Get everything, stat.”
“Stat, Stacy. EKG, blood gas, complete metabolic panel, CBC, chest x-ray. Now. And get the ICU resident, tell him I need him in here, please.” I start to examine Mr. Smith while he continues to smile beatifically at the ceiling. ICU resident arrives, asks what’s up. I explain that Mr. Smith here is seeing angels, which I believe is not a good sign. I would like him to pay particular attention to my patient tonight. Please. No problem, he says, in that special resident’s tone of voice that implies that I’m an idiot. Which I don’t mind, as long as he watches my patient.
Of course, Mr. Smith’s exam is completely normal. His vitals are perfect. His abdomen is soft, his incision clean and intact. Every test comes back perfectly normal. Mr. Smith is still smiling at the ceiling as I throw up my hands and head home. He doesn’t say good night.
I’m awakened by my beeper at 3 AM flashing the STAT PAGE signal. I don’t even look at the number, I know it’s going to be the ICU. I pull on my clothes and drive like a crazy person to the hospital. Judgmental ICU resident and Stacy are busy coding Mr. Smith. Billy, the former college football star turned ICU nurse, is doing the chest compressions. Who’s the idiot now, huh? “What happened?” I ask, examining Mr. Smith’s belly. Which is still perfectly soft. His incision still looks great. Only problem is the guy has no heartbeat.
“No idea,” overconfident resident and Stacy say in unison. “He was fine ten minutes ago. No problem.”
“Hold compressions,” I say to Billy, watching the monitor. Nothing. “Call it. What time?” I hadn’t put on my watch. [Brief Aside: If you have been following this blog, you have probably already figured out that you really do not want me running your code. Really.] I leave to wash my hands and call Mr. Smith’s children. The daughter thanks me (next of kin always thank you when you tell them their loved one just died) and says she and her brother will see me in the morning. I feel like crap and go home to go through my usual postmortem ritual at 4 am of sitting at the the kitchen table, eating lots of cookies and milk as I try to figure out just how I screwed up this time.
The next morning I sit down in the conference room with Mr. Smith’s children. I feel awful. “I’m so sorry about your Dad,” I begin, but they cut me off.
“Please, Dr. Geller, don’t be upset. Dad was fine with it.”
“I’m sorry? Fine with what?”
“Dad told us he wouldn’t be coming home. He made all the arrangements.” I’m just staring at them, trying to get my mouth closed again. “Really, Dr. Geller. Please don’t be upset. We really appreciate everything you did–”
“Killing off your Dad, you mean?”
“No, not at all. Dad really liked you and I know he’d tell you that he really appreciates everything–”
“If he were still alive, you mean?”
They nod. “Exactly. We’re good here, Dr. Geller. Really.”
Just wish I was.