I believe I’m old enough to be your doctor. Maybe that’s what it should say on my medical school diploma. No, I didn’t skip any grades, in fact I took a year off in the middle. And yet you ask “Just how old are you?” I realize I am 5 foot 4, still in my 20s and a woman, but I assure you I am old enough. To tell the truth, when I first started residency, I didn’t believe I was old enough to be a doctor either. But that changed my very first month with one man. The colonel had outlived his life expectancy by surviving 18 months with pancreatic cancer, a disease that usually kills in less than 6. I took care of him on his last 2 hospital admissions. It was my honor and my great horror to accompany him and his family through a journey from believing he was invincible to accepting his impending death. I remember the look in his eyes when he woke from a fitful sleep to find me squatting next to his wife, holding her hands as tears streamed down her face. We had just decided it was time to call his oldest boy home from his naval ship in the middle of the pacific. Secretly, I was hoping we hadn’t waited too long. “Are we really to that point?” he asked. “Better safe than sorry” was my reply. Over the next week, I watched him get weaker, his fevers continued to spike, his liver and kidneys began shutting down. One morning I came to see him before rounds. He was awake and sipping apple juice, a good sign. He looked at me and smiled. “Hi doc, have I shown you the pictures of my grandkids” He had, but I sat down and looked again. Once we were done, he looked at me seriously and said “I want to go home”. He always said that, but this time, we both knew it was different. I asked timidly “Are you talking about hospice?” He nodded. Trying not to cry, I said I would arrange it. I rubbed his knee and promised to return later. When I came back his family was gathered around him. His son had arrived and they had arranged to take him home the next day. I looked at his wife and saw her facade crumble as she wept openly. As I took her hand she mouthed ”thank you”. I nodded solemnly because I didn’t know what else to do. It was a long journey of acceptance for all of us. I had to accept that being a doctor is not only about saving lives, but also about easing transition to death. The colonel went home and died the very next day, amongst his family, where he belonged. Caring for the sick and dying changes you in many ways. Each patient ages you. So, each time you ask how old I am, the answer is always the same…I’m older than you think.
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