Concentration and Focus in Old Age
Where Do You Want to Die?

A TGB READER STORY: Annual Checkup Time

By Barrie N. Levine who blogs at Into the 70s

I customarily schedule my annual physical for January. I take my blood tests a week ahead for my doctor to review, the usual routine. But for this exam, Doctor M. didn’t even take out his stethoscope.

My husband had died on December 4th, after a struggle with a dementia illness that took him down in two years. I felt physically exhausted deep in my bones from caregiving. I reeled from the loss itself.

I had just completed the 30-day period in Jewish tradition in which the mourning family refrains from entertainment and business involvements.

I had no idea where to go from there after 41 years of a beautiful marriage from my twenties to my sixties.

When the doctor asked if I had any concerns, I burst into tears and could barely talk. “My heart is broken...my husband, he’s gone...” The nurse looked in to make herself available for blood pressure, but Doctor M. motioned her to leave and closed the door.

We spoke quietly for nearly an hour, both sitting in chairs, the examination table unused. I don’t remember exactly what he said, or what I said, just the quiet tones of our conversation.

Everywhere I went, even here, grief pursued me. I had to be in shock, still. I remember those unrelenting dark days, and this was one of them.

The doctor listened closely, witnessed my tears and placed his hand briefly over mine in a gesture of warmth. I spoke of my pain, how it burned, how it stayed with me day and night, inside or outside, alone or with others. I went on about how my husband rototilled our vegetable garden and built stone walls with his tractor, performing acts of service for his family as his life’s purpose.

Doctor M.’s compassionate observations comforted me. He spared me a physical examination that would have felt irrelevant, disrespectful - my body was not hurting, just every other part of my being, mind and spirit. My heart was shattered, but not in a way that a medical procedure could detect and set aright. He tended to me, the whole broken me.

He listened intently, expressing his faith in me, in my powers of resilience, in my ability to take in the support so many had generously offered. He advised me in ways that felt important and life-affirming - walk each day in the fresh winter air, be sure to eat nourishing food, seek restorative sleep.

Not able to make sense of my life in ruins, I simply followed his admonitions. That was all I could manage at the time.

The winter moved along, as did the sharply demarcated seasons we experience in New England. A year like no other.

The following January, I again reported for my physical. Before he began, Doctor M. asked how my year had been and how was I now?

First thing, I reminded him of our meeting the year before, when we had a long meeting in which he knew instinctively what would start the healing process for me, his grief-stricken patient.

This new appointment was much shorter than the last one. I climbed onto the examination table without hesitation. The nurse took my blood pressure and the doctor took out his stethoscope. I was ready to resume the annual ritual, a small victory that I recognized as a sign that it was safe to move forward.

No matter how I start my year, I will always include an expression of gratitude to my doctor for being so much more than just a health care provider. He had played a part in my life that I wanted to acknowledge - and praise - with all my heart.

First, he did no harm, his sacred oath. And after that, he honored my humanity.

* * *

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Reader's stories are welcome. If you have not published here or not recently, please read submission instructions. Only one story per email.]

Comments

How beautiful, Barrie. It would be would be wonderful if more doctors had the wisdom and were able to take the time to care for the whole patient as your doctor did for you.
Thank you for sharing your grief and your healing.

What a kind and caring read… even though you've already expressed your gratitude to your doctor, I hope he (and other doctors) get the chance to read this. Thanks for sharing, Barrie.

PS. I also took a look at your own blog, very impressed.

How fortunate you are to have this doctor. I hope your heart is healing.

Send this piece to the AMA for distribution. Very moving.

Beautiful, just beautiful!

Thank you. Your story is an important one—one I have also experienced.

When my husband died ten years ago, I wanted to be brave, to carry on, but hiding out was about the only thing in which I succeeded. Two months after Ray was gone, I went for a regular appointment with my oncologist, who was watching over me for a blood matter. He's a tall, angular man who towers above me. As I sat in one corner of the room, he entered and asked in his usual friendly way, "How are things with you?" I melted into tears as I told him my husband had died since my last office visit. He curled himself to sit on the step to the table, putting himself a good foot below me face. And he looked at me intently as I sobbed for a bit; then he kept nodding to encourage me to simply talk.

I suspect my blood work must have been okay that day, although we never discussed it. Instead he listened and I wailed for quite a while. He didn't say much, but his incredible kindness filled the room.

It may have been the first time I truly breathed since my husband's death.

God bless you, and thank you for sharing your memory.

What a beautiful story about a truly compassionate doctor. I remember having to do an ER visit shortly after my husband died and they asked who my emergency contact was. I started crying and said I don’t know, he’s dead. Never had I felt so alone.

Simply beautiful — you, your sharing, your doctor, your feeling safe to move forward. And readers’ comments, too. Now, I’m heading over to your blog!

What a remarkable piece, so beautifully written -- and so relatable. After being a caregiver to my husband for many years before his death, I was so used to everyone asking about him all the time, that the first time someone actually looked into my eyes and asked how I was doing, I barely knew how to respond. I, too, am fortunate to have a very compassionate and humane doctor who reminded me that "now is the time to take care of yourself." As you put it so perfectly, she "honored my humanity." If only more physicians were like this.
Thank you for this beautiful piece.

Oh Barrie! I wanted to cry and rejoice at the same time while reading your heartfelt post about your grief and the saving grace of your doctor who listened and responded with empathy.
Thank you for sharing. You are a talented writer.

What a lovely story, Barrie, and how fortunate you are to have such a compassionate doctor. He is one of the ones who is a true healer. I had a similar experience with, of all things, a GI doctor. I mentioned that my husband had died a year earlier, after a long-term horrible illness, and he looked at me and said, "I can't imagine anything worse". Just that validation soothed my heart so much, and also opened me to being willing to try the things he recommended.

It's coming on 4 years since my husband died, and I still get waves of grief, regret, and longing. Not often, and I feel much, much better than I did in the first year after he died, but now and then a scene or a conversation revisits me. I recently read online that intense grief lasts a few months, and grieving after losing a spouse should be done within a year. I laughed out loud.

I send you comfort and understanding. I also hope you will send your essay to the AMA.

Wow. Beautiful writing of a beautiful story. Thank you!

How inspiring to learn that there are a few kind & compassionate doctors out there You are so fortunate to receive exactly the right direction in your time of need. Sadly that was not my experience in a similar situation. Instead my doctor focused on the physical manifestations of my broken heart with no positive outcome from her. Somehow I survived & still haven't found such an empathetic professional. Thank you for writing so beautifully about your road to recovery. Your story really needs to be shared with medical professionals.

Barrie, I am overcome with your description of your love for your husband, how much he meant to you and how almost desperately you miss him. Heartwrenching. And then to find that your checkup was to become one human genuinely caring for the pain of another human! That you allowed yourself to give way, - -to let yourself open to him (and to yourself ) your indescribable grief.
Every day, I am thankful for the continued health and presence of the young woman who said "I do" in that church more than 61 years ago. Should she pass before me, I cannot imagine my life without her. Perhaps, Barrie, I'll be so fortunate as to have such an hour with my doctor. Thank you for your posting.

Just catching up here and so glad I did not miss this lovely and poignant story. Moments like the one you describe are remarkable and it's comforting to know that there are still doctors who would be so sensitive, respectful caring and generous with their time. Thank you for sharing this.

Dear Time Goes By readers, I am deeply honored that Ronni decided to publish my submission, and equally grateful for the heartfelt comments many of you have made in response to my story, expressing your support, understanding, and kinship.

As horrible as it is to watch a beloved one suffer and then to experience a loss of the life we knew and the future we had hoped for, I have never felt so much a part of humanity as I do now. All of you have affirmed that to me again, as we continue our life’s journey together.

What a beautiful read it is, Ronnie!! Empathy is a noble act, and finding it in people has become a rarity. Glad to know that the doctor acted at the right time. God Bless him!! That was an excellent post, and an inspiring one, indeed.

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