How I became a better doctor


I became a better doctor on the day I became a cardiac patient. On that day, I experienced the helpless, vulnerable, and needy feelings of a patient’s dependency and blind trust of a physician whom I did not know. I suddenly realized how it feels to be a patient.

Dr. Richard W. Cohen and his daughter, Julia Cohen, secured first place in the 2019 USTA Father Daughter Clay Court Championship 6 months after his heart attack. Courtesy Richard W. Cohen

Dr. Richard W. Cohen and his daughter, Julia Cohen, secured first place in the 2019 USTA Father Daughter Clay Court Championship 6 months after his heart attack.

My entire life, I had always been an athlete in excellent shape. My 7-day-a-week daily schedule included seeing patients, being an expert psychiatric witness for disability cases, playing 2 hours of tennis, walking/running for 1 hour, and ending the night with 1 hour on a stationary bike.

I get to see my children all the time. I am so fortunate to get to travel with them and play national father-son and father-daughter tennis tournaments. We have been ranked No. 1 in the country many times. I have won 16 gold balls in these tournaments, each symbolic of a U.S. championship.

As a busy board-certified psychiatrist, I had been featured in an article, “Well being: Tennis is doctor’s favorite medicine,” by Art Carey, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, posted May 2, 2011. The author discussed my diet and exercise regime, and how I used exercise to stay healthy and to deal with the stress of being a physician.

‘Take me to the hospital’

At the end of 2018, I had a complete blood count performed, and the results indicated that I had a lipid panel of a healthy 30-year-old; however, my delusional bubble burst in March 2019. I was the No. 1 seed in a National Father-Daughter Tennis Tournament in Chicago. We were in the semifinal match, we had won the first set, and we were up 3-0. I fell, hit my head on the net post, and was feeling nauseated. I checked for bleeding and continued playing, though I was not feeling well. Five minutes later, I experienced symptoms of very extreme gastrointestinal pain and nausea. I ran off the tennis court wanting to vomit and get rid of the symptom so I could go back and finish the match. I wanted to play in the finals the following day and try to win the tournament.

The kind, competent, compassionate, and warm tournament director said I looked gray – and he promptly called 911. The paramedics came and said they thought I may be having a heart attack. I was in denial since I had no chest pain and I thought I was super healthy; therefore, I could not be experiencing an acute myocardial infarction. I finally agreed to let technicians perform an EKG, and they told me that I had ST elevation. Reality finally set in and I realized I was having a heart attack. “Take me to the hospital,” I said.

At the Chicago hospital where I was taken, I told doctors and staff I was a physician. To my surprise, they did not care. I was not going to get any prioritized treatment. Despite all of my devotion to medicine, I was not even getting their top physician to treat me. I was being evaluated by a resident. I felt even more deflated.

They performed a cardiac catheterization and put in one stent in one vessel in the right cardiac vessel. I had many questions to ask, but everyone seemed very impatient and abrupt with me, acting like this was just a very routine procedure. No one ever adequately answered my questions. I was very disillusioned, and I felt very insignificant, scared, and invisible.

I was discharged a few days later and was told my heart problem was fixed. I was instructed to follow up with a cardiologist in Philadelphia when I got home.

The first night home, I experienced chest pain. I was alarmed and thought my stent may have collapsed, so I went to the emergency room of the Philadelphia area hospital I knew had the best cardiac staff. After another blood test, indicating raised troponin levels, I was informed they needed to perform another cardiac catheterization. I learned I had two more coronary artery blockages, each 95%-99%, in the left ventricle.

I was shocked. How could the doctor in Chicago have made such a significant mistake? What happened? I would never know.

The interventional cardiologist in Philadelphia was able to repair one coronary artery, but the other blockage in the LED vessel (yes, the widow maker) had calcified too much for a stent. I would need cardiac bypass surgery. This was very unbelievable to me, and furthermore, I would have to wait 2 long weeks for the anticoagulant effect of the Brilinta to wear off before I could undergo bypass surgery.

While I anxiously waited for the big day, I was calling either my cardiologist, surgeon, or his nurse practitioner almost daily with questions and concerns; after all, this was a life-threatening and momentous event. Thankfully, I was met with great patience, understanding, and promptness of detailed answers and explanations by all involved with my cardiac care. The reactions of the staff made me mindful of the importance of really hearing my patients’ concerns and addressing their issues in a prompt, nonjudgmental, patient, and genuine manner. I am grateful that my robotic cardiac bypass surgery on March 26, 2019, went very well, and I am now back to work, playing tennis, jogging slowly, and riding my stationery bike.


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