I once had a uniform opinion of doctors. Given the extensive training physicians undergo, plus the crazy work hours they often endure, I typically put them in an exalted position. Then my father got sick.
My attitude changed about the time we were waiting on the results from my dad's lung biopsy. They took a sample on a Friday afternoon and said we would have the results in 48 hours. By Sunday night, I was crawling the hospital walls waiting on word from the doctors. That's when I saw the physician who did the biopsy rushing down a hallway. I tracked him down and asked when the results would be ready.
"Uh, probably tomorrow morning, but don't get your hopes up. Both his lungs looked terrible." With a conciliatory pat on my shoulder, he then said, "I guess this serves as a good lesson why you should never smoke!" And off he went.
I stood there shocked. Shocked by not only what he said, but also how he said it. With so little compassion—or even common decency—he essentially told me that my father was a goner.
My story isn't meant to be an anti-doctor message, but I do hope to remove the pedestal on which patients and their families sometimes put physicians.
Without a doubt, healthcare providers can be amazing human beings. That became crystal clear when my dad was hospital bound. I can never emphasize enough the gratitude I feel for the kindness my father's nurses showed to both him and me. But doctors are still just people. They get distracted. They say the wrong thing. Intentional or not, they might also force upon you what they think is right for your loved one, even when your gut is telling you otherwise.
This, too, became clear when my father was in the hospital for the last time. He had pneumonia, and despite rounds of antibiotics, his improvement was minimal. The edema in his lungs demanded daily drainage, and his low hemoglobin count required two blood transfusions. Still, he was lucid, and more importantly, in good spirits. That was just my dad. Even with an oxygen mask on, he was quite the jokester.
One Sunday afternoon, we were watching the Bears game. I was happily surprised because my father was actually eating his lunch: a hot dog with fries. All in all, it was a very good day. That's when his pulmonologist made an unexpected visit. He checked my dad's lungs, asked how he was feeling and then gestured for me to speak with him in the hallway.
"So are you ready for hospice?" he asked.
I was taken aback by his bluntness. Granted, I knew this was where we were headed, and perhaps a day or two earlier I might have understood his motivation to ask. But hadn't he noticed my father's demeanor just 30 seconds ago? Didn't he see Dad sitting up, eating a hot dog and intently watching his favorite football team?
I answered no. He pressed the issue, telling me what I already knew. My father's pneumonia was not improving. His edema and anemia were significant. He would likely not return home. Again, I said no.
I had medical power of attorney, which I suppose is why he was talking to me instead of my father. However, my father was alert and able to make his own decisions. Until that changed, or he alone decided that he was ready for hospice, I knew it was not the right choice.
But it was incredibly difficult to tell this doctor—this person who presumably knew better than I did—no. After a few minutes, he realized that he wasn't going to change my mind and left.
Two days later, my father's health took a severe turn south. He then asked for hospice. On his own terms. So here's my message: stick to your convictions. While a doctor has the medical expertise, only you and your loved one have the intuition to know what is best for your situation.