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Lives of Doctor Wives: Survivor Saturday--When A Patient Dies

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Survivor Saturday--When A Patient Dies

Last week, I received a text from my husband during his call shift that essentially read, "Can you come to the hospital for a visit? And bring food?". I'm used to these types of communications from him, especially when his calls keep him at the hospital and he's too busy to grab dinner from the cafeteria. My son and I put together some leftovers, hopped in the car, and trekked on over to Daddy's work. When we got there, I could tell he was very happy to see us, and I wondered why. We made our way to the call room, and as soon as the door was closed, he related the story of his first case that morning. He had received a text from the doctor on the previous shift asking if he could come in early to help her. She was swamped. When he got there, he immediately started watching a woman who had been progressing very slowly with her labor. He decided to do a Cesarean section when the baby's heart rate dropped a couple of times. Although everything looked routine and the baby came out crying and appeared healthy, it almost immediately "crumped", as the OBs put it, meaning it had coded. The on-call pediatrician and another who happened to be the hospital worked on the baby for an hour, but could not revive it. My husband was devastated. In his eight years of medical training, he's seen many types of deaths, including many fetal demises. However, there was always some reason why the baby died in the womb or soon after birth. This was, quite possibly, the first time he'd ever witnessed the death of a child who appeared to be completely healthy on delivery. There had been no indications up to that point that anything was wrong with it, and although he thought he had done everything possible to deliver the baby successfully, he could not figure out why it had died. As he told me the story, I could see the heartache in his eyes. It really hurt him, partly because a child he had delivered died, but I think also because he didn't have a solution to the problem. When our spouses train to become doctors, they learn how to look at their patients closely, diagnose their illnesses, and fix them as best they can. Unfortunately, not everyone can be fixed, and sometimes, the totally unexpected happens. I don't know how physicians are trained to deal with such situations, but my husband did what he thought best for his own mental state. He assisted the other doctor from his practice who was still there during another Cesarean and delivered a healthy baby with her. She told him that he didn't have to help her, but he said he really needed to be there when a healthy baby came into the world, and he had something to do with it. It was his way of coping. He ended up delivering several other babies that day, and even though each of those cases helped him feel better about his abilities and about the world, it helped him even more when my son and I showed up to give him a little support that evening. I really didn't know what to say to him, so I just gave him a sympathetic hug and patted him on the shoulder. I think just being able to talk about the situation helped him immensely, and I came to realize how important my role as his spouse was to him that day. No matter how much I might feel resentful about his call hours and how often he's away from me and my son, I have to remember that we're still a very important part of his life and that he needs us for encouragement and support when his job gets rough and he's exhausted. I'm sure there will be more instances in the future when he won't be able to fix a situation, and I hope that he turns to me in his time of need like he did last week.
On a side note, my husband did find out later through autopsy that the baby had a heart defect. I think he felt better knowing there was a reason for its death, but he was very stressed about the situation until he had an answer.

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9 Comments:

Blogger Behrmans said...

I’m sure that was a very hard experience to go through. I’m not sure what to say but it’s nice to have Doctors out there that care and are not just use to it happening. I’m sure it was such a blessing to have his family at his side.

I am new to the board and have found it very interesting and extremely helpful to be able to read everything on this blog. My husband is thinking of going into OB/GYN so it has been helpful to read your individual blog as well.

I hope your husband is feeling better now.

Tammy

July 25, 2009 at 7:50 AM  
Blogger Mommy, Esq. said...

My husband experienced a patient's death recently and it shook him to the core...at least it seemed that way to me. I could see that he was struggling with his emotions over what happened...not knowing if there was something he did or failed to do that may have contributed in this person's death. I found it very difficult as his spouse to know how to comfort him and help him deal with his grief and feelings of responsibility. The family of this patient refused an autopsy, which disappointed my husband because he never really got any closure on knowing what his role was exactly in all of this. Its been almost a year since this occurrence, and I know that it still bothers him. I found it very disappointing that his residency program didn't offer some sort of counseling. I think its unfair to expect these men and women doctors to work as hard as they do, and simply expect them to put these situations behind them immediately.

July 25, 2009 at 10:02 AM  
Blogger MW said...

Reason #946735847635 why I'm not cut out to be a doctor. Your story has me in tears. I can't imagine how rough that was for your husband.

Shouldn't most hospitals have grief counselors? I wonder if any have one specifically designated for physicians. It would make sense.

Still, the support from family is invaluable. I'm sure your presence had a great impact.

July 25, 2009 at 10:51 AM  
OpenID joz1234 said...

I'm sorry to hear your husband's experience. It says a lot of your relationship that he turned to you for support.

My husband lost a patient this week to, but the patient was not a child. I think he would have a really hard time losing a child too.

I think oftentimes that people think doctors are heartless because they have to develop coping mechanisms for the things that they see everyday. People don't realize that most doctors really do care and internalize much of what they see.

July 25, 2009 at 1:16 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Great post, Amanda. This will very likely happen to all of us at some point in our husbands' careers (if not a death, then a really horrible diagnosis), so it's good to remember how much they need our support. Just being there to listen and remind him that he's a great doctor is our #1 job in those situations.

July 25, 2009 at 1:29 PM  
Blogger Carol said...

It's easy to become so focused on getting our own needs met that we end up neglecting to meet our hard-working husbands' needs. Thanks for the reminder.

July 25, 2009 at 3:14 PM  
Blogger Melisa said...

He is blessed to have such a supportive and understanding spouse. Death can be so hard to understand and accept.

July 25, 2009 at 11:23 PM  
Blogger Married to a med student - Marissa Nicole said...

What a tragic story - not that it makes it much easier but at least the family and the staff will have some closure knowing there was a defect and it was nothing that anyone did wrong.
I dread the day my husband will experience this.

July 26, 2009 at 7:52 PM  
Blogger Kathi Browne said...

What a moving post, Amanda. Wonderful that you shared it with everyone on the board. Every wive will remember that moment when the spouse couldn't deal with a situation and called on them for help.

My memory is of lying on the call bed at a VA hospital as my husband withdrew into an almost fetal position. I had never seen him "not in control" before and it was frightening. We didn't talk much that night (just cuddled), but later he shared with me that he was under such pressure to always fix what was wrong, always heal who was sick... that when he found himself in a situation he couldn't fix, he considered it a failure. Can you imagine living with a burden like that? Physicians are under such pressure to be superhuman that they almost expect it from themselves. It's up to us to give them permission to be human again.

July 26, 2009 at 11:02 PM  

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