I have not written much all summer because there is only one medical story on my mind. I have resisted publishing this story until I had something to say that might be helpful for others in a similar situation. Recently, one realization comes back to me again and again and for that reason I write about it now.
My beautiful baby sister is dying. I have been travelling to Halifax to spend time with her, knitting and talking while she lays in bed. I spend the days after these visits with a heartache that will not stop and I find now that I cannot stop thinking about her.
My sister has lived at least five years longer than her doctors thought she would. She has been able to see her daughter start and almost finish nursing school. She was happy to have been well enough to attend our mother’s funeral. If she has any pain, she minimizes it. If she has suffered any distress, she hides it behind her sense of humour. She is suffering from visual hallucinations, likely because of medication. Her thoughts on this: “At least it gives me something interesting to watch.” She is a true believer in positive thinking.
My sister is a great raconteur and she spends these Saturdays telling me the stories of her life. She talks of her friends from elementary school, high school and nursing school, most of whom she has found on Facebook. I am trying to write down what she tells me. When I read it back to her, she listens to my account and says, “Stick with quilting for a hobby.” She laughs at her own joke and then reminds me of how bad a baker I used to be. She tells me about patients she had cared for as a nurse and about how the most important parts of nursing involve “no science at all”. In the middle of one story, she stops and says to me, “I am so glad to see you. I don’t want you to be sad, you know.” I do not want to cry and the heartache inside me intensifies.
I have been contemplating how I will be a comfort to her. I want to be a welcome visitor regularly for as long as possible. It is easy for me to listen, as this is something I do most days at work. I only rarely struggle with people’s painful, emotional stories at work, but my sister is not my work. I have always been very good at separating work from family and, as much as I am diligent at work, I believe that my family needs me not to be a doctor, but someone better. Not that I don’t think being a doctor is important, but I really want to be a good sister in this time when she needs a sister.
This experience with my sister helps me to understand what it is like to be relying on doctors and nurses, how helpless one can feel, even when one has great knowledge. I find myself asking: “Do I remember how helpless a patient or their family member feels when I am speaking with them?” I know that my excessive emotional investment in a person’s care can lead me to errors – mostly sins of commission, rather than omission – but do I do what I can to help people feel at ease with being helpless?
I have been remembering the first time one of my patients died in my internal medicine rotation as a medical student. She was an older lady not expected to live. Her family took turns sitting at her bedside, day and night. I remember stopping to speak with them, day and night, getting them coffee or bringing them things to read or answering questions. I felt so badly because there was nothing I could do. I would sit with them and listen to their stories of their mother.
Thinking of my sister, I read through my journals of the six weeks I spent with this family and realized that I had the answer all those years ago, when I believed I had no answers at all. What on earth happens to doctors over the years that, as we become less helpless professionally, we seem to lose all the answers?

(Note: This is an image of Lawrencetown Beach, the Nova Scotia beach closest to my sister’s home.)

7 thoughts on “The Answer

  1. janfalls says:

    Compassionate listening – you have indeed found the answer – perhaps more of us will understand that misunderstood skill after reading your post. You are indeed a good sister at a time when your sister needs you. Blessings to you both.

  2. Michael Golbey says:

    Thanks for sharing, Gail. I was not aware of any of this and my thoughts are with you all. If your quilting is as good as your writing then you have at least two (and I know many more) remarkable talents! I agree with Ron – your caring compassion really shines through.

  3. Darren Larsen says:

    Thanks for sharing this personal story Gail. I agree… sometimes the best thing we can do is just sit back and not do anything (“Don’t just do something …. Stand there!!). Brings the humanity back, and with it th joy in our work .

  4. Ross Male says:

    Occasionally ones comes across an inspired piece of writing from a colleague that puts the essence of our profession in focus and recharges one’s batteries. This is one of those, Gail. Much like one earlier this year when our chief of staff wrote about one of our respected and loved colleagues who passed away much too early, and about his practice and art of medicine. At that time I thought, this should be required reading for all medical students. I thought initially the same about yours, Gail, and then quickly realized it is really for all of us. Makes me want to start collating “The collected wisdom of your colleagues”!

    As Ron said, your compassion shines through. I wish you and your sister and family peace as you go through this difficult time. You seem to have the sense of humour angle covered.

  5. Gail van der Leek says:

    Kind , compassionate , humble words of caring.
    Sending Love & positive thoughts to you, your wonderful sister & family. ❤ May you all experience the peace that passes understanding.

  6. Ron Sapsford says:

    A beautiful story Gail. Your compassion shines all through it!

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