That Grief That Comes With Losing a Doctor

When I was a junior in college, I shared a fifth-floor studio apartment in a pre-war, walk-up Manhattan building with a dear friend. For many New Yorkers, it was customary to take one’s laundry to a dry cleaner to be washed and folded if you didn’t have access to machines in your building. I wasn’t one of the lucky ones, so every couple of weeks, I’d lug my gray, jersey laundry bag down five flights of narrow stairs and drop it off with the sweet couple who owned the cleaners attached to my building. They were such an endearing duo – always greeting me with a smile, holding onto our odd-shaped packages until we returned home at night and folding all of my clothes with enviably crisp corners. When my roommate and I decided to make the move to Brooklyn, one of the things I would miss most was this couple. They had become a part of my daily routine – a comfort to see and a reminder that to a certain point, I was universally cared for.

I tell you this story to illustrate the importance that people can have on your life. Perhaps you’d like to substitute my dry cleaners for your local grocery store clerk, or the wide-smiling FedEx delivery guy who always tosses your pup a treat. Now, take that emotional response and double it for the people, aside from family and friends, who have a tremendous impact on your day-to-day: an especially caring pharmacist, your energizing mentor, your watchdog of a next-door neighbor. To move away or to lose one of these individuals guts you a little bit more than most. You can feel the absence in your every day and notice the spaces they once filled.

Now, for a person that struggles with chronic/mental illness, try tripling that response. Does it hurt in the parts of you that you didn’t even know you could feel pain in? That is what it is like to lose a doctor, nurse, surgeon or therapist on your medical team.

For those of us who have been living in the chronically ill community for quite a while, we can attest to how important and rare it is to find members of your medical team who are indispensable. I have gone through a significant number of neurologists and ear-nose-throat specialists in my day. My short lifetime has seen them all – from misguided surgeons who make horrific judgment calls to inexperienced surgeons who only prescribe standard procedures without the slightest consideration for treatments on the fringe. But I like to think that all of the bitterness prepared me for my current surgeon, whom I will refer to as Dr. X. Though he has only treated me since 2015, he has completely regalvanized my trust in doctors. He has been the bright light in the black licorice sea of my medical journey.

I like to say that I got sick enough to be lucky enough to meet Dr. X. Aside from performing two very complicated and side effect-rich procedures on me in the span of nine months, he most recently took my brain MRI to be reviewed by top radiologists across the country in order to determine the necessity of my upcoming operation (news flash: it’s necessary). Imagine that: a doctor that pursues a second and third opinion for the patient! He is equally personable and knowledgable, and never has to recap my medical history at the beginning of each appointment. He’s also been a tried-and-true advocate for my prickly pain management before and after each surgery.

At my most recent appointment, in which we were to discuss my treatment plan and course of action for an upcoming surgery, Dr. X delivered the news that he was retiring from surgical cases such as mine. My stomach sank and I could feel my belly button all the way in my toes.

It has taken me weeks to sit down and write about this loss in my life. Surgeons like Dr. X are so incredibly rare to patients like me. He has dedicated his 30+ year career to the very small part of the body which I just happen to get recurring infections in (go me!), and has succeeded in creating a speciality practice performing at the top of his craft (go him!).

I have yet to fully process this change. It may take me a while. And to be honest, I may never get over it. But I am incredibly grateful to have had a doctor like him in my corner. He was a constant reminder that puzzling patients like myself are worth saving, are worth waking up in the middle of the night for and are usually the reason most people get into medicine in the first place.

Cheers to all you tricky patients. May you find your Dr. X one day, too.

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Thinkstock photo via Ridofranz.

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