This I believe: The Power of Human Connectivity.
I am a physician practicing on the coast of Maine. Recently, while doing hospital rounds, I stopped by the room of one of my inpatients, finding him asleep. The curtain separating his bed from his roommate’s was open. The fellow in the other bed was sitting up watching TV, and we looked at each other. I immediately recognized him: it was Robbie’s father!
In the 1990’s my practice consisted mostly of men suffering from HIV/AIDS. Robbie was a vivacious, somewhat flamboyant openly gay man in his late thirties with advanced AIDS. This was before we had any effective treatment to halt and reverse the otherwise relentless course of his disease. Robbie suffered from a number of AIDS-related complications, taking a large number of medicines. He was a wonderful patient: reliable, appreciative, and amazingly up-beat. My office staff loved him: he sent us postcards when traveling, and pictures of his “winning outfits” from various drag queen contests. When he developed progressive AIDS dementia, necessitating a move back in with his parents, his care became increasingly focused on comfort measures. Eventually, I made house calls, where I would find him being lovingly tended to by his parents. He became incontinent, and eventually non-verbal. But he always smiled. He died like that in his parents’ arms.
After greeting Robbie’s father and exchanging a few pleasantries, he asked me to sit. He spoke of how much it meant to his family that I made those final house calls to tend to Robbie. He then said that a few days after Robbie died, he awoke in the middle of the night and saw Robbie standing at the foot of the bed, dressed in a fine suit, the picture of health –telling him that “I am fine now, everything is fine, it is all okay” – and then he just faded away. He woke his wife and told her what he had seen, saying: “if only Dr. Ossanna could have been here to see Robbie like that – healthy and whole again, and okay. He would have liked seeing Robbie like that.”
I have often reflected back on those early days as the times when “we could do nothing” for patients with HIV/AIDS. Routinely now, we see patients thrive near normalcy with effective drug therapy, even when diagnosed with advanced disease. But Robbie’s father reminded me that I in fact had done something very important: I had cared for a very sick young man who was dying long before his time. I attended to details of his suffering and comfort. I was there. I had established a human connection that had provided something essential and powerful for Robbie and his family in his final days. I had made a difference after all, back when I had though “we could do nothing”.
I believe in the power of human connectivity – as a doctor, this may be at times more helpful and do more good than any drug I can think to prescribe. I thank Robbie’s father for reminding me.