There's frequently a deep subtext in the doctor-patient relationship, often expressed as a fault line where the tectonic plates of lay and medical culture collide.* This week three different families gave me a gift. Each illuminates a different part of how physicians, patients, and families struggle together over complex decisions at the end of life.
The first was a gift card for a local restaurant. The accompanying note by a grieving son thanked me for my patience in dealing with his mother and his siblings. The five children wrangled over every decision -- should we bring Mom home? should we find a nursing home? who'll take what shift caring for her? -- and it seemed that every day required a new negotiation and a new building of consensus. Sometimes I explained the same point to three different siblings in the same day, each explanation taking many minutes. It was a month before she was ready to leave the hospital and, as it turned out, go home for a short while before her relatively sudden death. As I thought about the gift, it occurred to me that the real message was: "We're sorry."
The second gift came from the wild-eyed, suspicious daughter described in my earlier post, "Code Status." This one was a necktie with a famous designer's label. The daughter told me, "I'm a deeply spiritual person, and I sense you are, too. I've had this tie for many years, just waiting for the right person to give it to. Now I have faith that you are that person." Being put on a pedestal always gives me vertigo. I thought perhaps this gift might mean "We have ultimate faith in you" or, worse yet, "You can do no wrong." I wondered out loud if I was permitted to accept such an expensive gift. (I am salaried by my hospital system.) The daughter replied, "Don't worry about it. I bought it in China, and it's a counterfeit." We'd just concluded working out an elaborate care plan for her mother that would include hospice enrollment a couple of days later. Naturally, the plan completely unraveled over the weekend when I was off call. So perhaps the message of this gift was: "Gotcha."
The last gift came from the daughter of an elderly woman I'll call Molly and who will be described in a forthcoming post called "Hugs and Kisses." As Molly finally lay dying peacefully and free of pain, consistent with her expressed desires but achieved only after a long struggle with her inner demons and with the system, her daughter asked me to choose an item from a collection of photographs she'd done. They were all beautiful nature scenes taken in the western United States. My selection was a sunset, the light shimmering on the ocean and framed by the dark silhouette of an evergreen tree. It seemed appropriate for the moment. We said our good-byes, and once again I learned that sometimes a gift means simply: "Thank you."
*The clash between medical and lay cultures is expertly described in Hippocrates' Shadow: Secrets from the House of Medicine, by David H. Newman, M.D. This remarkable book should be required reading for every health professional, and for every person who's ever consulted a health professional.