I had a very humbling experience today. I was in the exam room with a doctor and an elderly patient, a widower who was there alone, when the doctor had to tell him his cancer had spread and was now incurable. His first question was “How long have I got?”. The doctor told him that most people in this situation live six to eight months. He said, “Well, I hope I make it to the spring so my family doesn’t have to go to a funeral in the cold.”
At that very moment, the least opportune moment in the history of the universe, there was a fire alarm and we all had to leave the building. I have never felt so badly for a person in my life. The patient was calm but obviously shaken. The doctor took him to a table in a nearby enclosed concourse, full of people milling about, and finished the talk, offering him some options for treatment, but the moment was definitely ruined. All that man will remember will be that there was a fire alarm during the appointment when he learned he was dying. Not one of those situations where you laugh later.
Thankfully, it was a real Code Red and not a drill, or I would have ripped the stomach out of whoever decided to pull the alarm. Lucky for them, there was, apparently, some real incident, which was cleared shortly and we all went about our business. And this poor man went on his way home to call his sons and tell them he is dying.
I wonder what dying people worry about? I wonder if he is at home right now thinking about his own death and what it will be like. I wonder if he told his sons.
I have a knot in my stomach thinking about him. I don’t usually get emotional about patients (I think it’s self preservation) but the situation was so cruel and unfortunate that I can’t stop thinking of him. Being told you have an illness which is now considered terminal, is unimaginably awful in and of itself, but to have to make your decisions in a hall full of people while a siren blares? It makes me wonder Who could have orchestrated such circumstances. I hope that patient can sleep tonight. I hope he lives tonight in the belief he will see his wife again. I hope he has some comfort, because we certainly couldn’t give him any.