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.
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