Mike died last week.
He was a long-retired doc, in his mid-90s. One of my favorite patients to just chat with about nothing in particular. I learned more from him about restoring old grandfather clocks than I ever dreamed I’d know.
After receiving the sad news, I sat down, as I often do, to write a letter to his family. After 23 years I have a pretty standard idea of what I want to say, but it still always takes some thought.
Sealing the envelopes on these letters always seems to be more than just paperwork. There’s a symbolism to it, that I’m closing out my relationship, sometimes of 10-20 years, with the person involved.
Some patients become friends after a time. It’s a matter of chemistry. I don’t socialize with them outside my office, but still enjoy seeing them and talking about nonmedical stuff in the space around clinical questions and answers. They’re the ones it’s hardest to say goodbye to.
I’ll miss my 2-3 visits a year with Mike. We swapped medical war stories, family anecdotes, and the occasional tip about clock restoration that I’ll probably never use (but who knows, he didn’t start until after he retired).
Closing the envelope comes with the realization that I won’t be seeing him again. I don’t go to patient funerals, as I believe those are for families and close friends, and so writing the letter is the closest I’ll get to saying goodbye.
Medicine, and how we practice, is focused on what we do for the patient – which is what it should be.
But lost in the shuffle sometimes is realizing what the patient does for us. That’s also important, but harder to quantify. And sometimes we don’t realize it until we seal the envelope.
Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.