Death is not the ultimate tragedy of life. The ultimate tragedy is depersonalization–dying in an alien and sterile area, separated from the spiritual nourishment that comes from being able to reach out to a loving hand, separated from the desire to experience the things that make life worth living, separated from hope.
–Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie
I was fortunate to have one patient for six months. His name was Rich. However, referring to him as Doc always put a smile on his face. Over the course of 17 visits, I learned from this retired internist something they do not teach you in medical school. Sometimes answers, diagnoses, and treatment plans are not the main point. The point is patients want their doctor to recognize the fragility of human life and empathize with them.
I learned that so far there is a lack of connection on the emotional level that caters to a person’s soul. Take for example, the detached language of medicine or the way doctors go about diagnosing their patients. It is this technical and unemotional language that helps widen the gap between a doctor and his or her patient. Patients are left feeling the need to turn to other sources such as novels, poems, or the Bible to heal a part of them that medicine cannot reach. I learned that this problem is completely avoidable. As a doctor, I will remember not to underestimate the value of bedside etiquette. Awareness about this insight could help us deal with the bioethical issues surrounding care for the dying. One constructive thing this insight does is pushes us to devote more time to evaluating the reasons behind why dying patients often feel alienated and become depressed. It also suggests that the solution to this issue may lie in simple alternative remedies. For example, warm compresses have an amazing way of alleviating a person’s pain. Or, even the simple gesture of covering Rich with a blanket made a huge difference. This raises the question – what advantage could a warm compress have over the modern drugs researchers have devoted time to create? Similar to how they provide warmth, patients want doctors to touch their souls and warm their hearts. The use of a compress allows for physical human interaction creating a connection built on empathy and gratitude.
One final insight from Hospice, and perhaps the most important, is that I have learned that suffering and perseverance unify us as humans in a way that transcends race, religion, and class. There is calming sense in knowing others have shared in similar experiences before. In my opinion, this would be the greatest act of beneficence the doctor could provide. With death being inevitable, it is important to fix the disconnection between medicine and the soul that has existed for too long. While I do not feel as though my time as a Hospice volunteer revealed the meaning of life to me, it did teach me how to add meaning to my life. It all starts with the relationships I build with others.