A hospital or doctor’s office is a place where you get to witness a rainbow of emotions. And we, as doctors, are many times affected by those emotions. While at times the impact is just enough to bring a smile on our face or a tear in the eye, at others we are left with memories either to cherish for a lifetime or to haunt us forever. Some of the doctors from our medical fraternity shared the most heartbreaking experiences of their career with us. Here are their stories.
As part of residency training at Duke University in anatomic and clinical pathology, I had to serve as the medical examiner for the hospital. It was my job to investigate all cases of accidental or suspicious deaths of patients admitted to the hospital. Typical routines included motor vehicle accidents, people who had fallen in their homes, or had an unfortunate, unforeseen circumstance that led to their death.
The most dreaded times while I was performing these duties were when I would get a page from the Pediatric ICU. It was never good. After taking the information and mustering up the courage to face whatever heart rending malady had occurred that day, I would put on my white coat, something I didn’t usually wear, as if it could shield me from whatever painful thing I was about to witness.
That particular day there was a little 2 years old boy. His older siblings had been playing in the yard and he was too young to keep up. Seeing him distraught and crying, a family friend tried to soothe him by giving him a ride on the back of his pickup truck. As he backed out the driveway, he didn’t realize that the child had fallen. He ran over the toddler, who was so excited now to get some attention.
I entered the room where the child lay. All the blinking beeping machinery making him look alive. But I knew he was not. They had already called for me, the medical examiner. The boy was brain dead. His mother and grandmother stood by his side rubbing, touching, crying, calling for him. His mother was distraught with fear, loss, and disbelief.
The chaplain was there as well. And then we all began to pray. I had a son his age at the time. I didn’t even want to imagine how I would feel if it were my son laying on this bed!
So although my role there was to document his injuries, sign the death certificate, and ask the family if they would like to donate his organs so that other children might live, I took a different course of action. That could wait. This moment was too precious to slip away. As the mother began to pray, I asked if I could join in. And we all held hands, mom, grandma, the chaplain and the medical examiner. His mother prayed a heart wrenching prayer begging God to resurrect her son as he had done Lazarus. I shall never forget the sound of the mother’s plea to the ears and heart of God while she was standing over her child who looked alive but was surely dead.
I have thought of her often over the years since that day. I wonder how long it took her to heal, to forgive the family friend that caused the accident, to live fully again. I wonder if she has yet, but my prayer for her is although God didn’t resurrect her son, that He did resurrect her spirit and that she has moved forward to abundant life after astounding loss.
Dr David. A. Rivera has another heart wrenching story to share:
The worst time was getting that particular call from the ER. Our receptionist, Barb, 38 weeks pregnant, was broadsided in a rainstorm by an 84 year old guy. She was ejected from the car, which then rolled on her. The paramedics could feel the baby struggling but no way to deliver him. They were both dead by the time they got to the hospital. I was in the room with both of them while someone tracked down her husband.
The gurney was bloody; the abdominal incision was still open. Both mom and baby looked peaceful, as if they were sleeping. I covered her with her gown and a sheet. Two of our staff members appeared a few minutes later, their faces pale and grim.
Barb’s husband had been working and someone had to track him down. One of the nurses escorted him to the room when he came in about 30 minutes later. I excused myself to make room for him and as I left, I heard the most anguished cry ever to come from a broken heart. The woman he cherished and her baby would never come home; our friend was gone forever.
Most of the office went to the funeral. Barb and Robie—she’d picked out the name a few months before—were in the same casket. The afternoon was cool but sunny, not cold and rainy like the night they died. We followed the hearse to the cemetery and gathered to say our last farewells. We drove back to the office in silence, sharing a grief that needed no words.
Dr Joseph Alton is also haunted by the memory of losing a pregnant woman and her child, but under different circumstances. Here’s how he narrated his story:
Many years ago, early in my career, I worked as an OBG in an inner-city hospital in Miami, Florida. One morning, a young woman about 32 weeks pregnant arrived in a state of Status Asthmaticus. With some difficulty, we were able to restore her respiratory function and resolve the event. A short while later she expressed her desire to go home. Apparently, she was a new arrival from Haiti and had no local family other than her two small children who were alone in the apartment.
I indicated that she should stay. Her situation was fragile and she could experience another severe asthmatic episode, but she was adamant in her desire to leave the hospital. Concerned, I told her that she might die if she went into Status Asthmaticus again in an uncontrolled setting. She said My children might die if I stay here. She signed out against medical advice. Later that evening, she returned, again in Status Asthmaticus, but this time she went into arrest and could not be resuscitated. It was my duty to perform an agonal Cesarean section. The baby did not survive either.
This event occurred 35 years ago, so long that I, as a retired physician, am probably using antiquated terminology in relating this story. I have never told it publicly, much as many veterans never discuss their war experiences even with family. I don’t know if it’s a story about a foolish choice or of the strength of a mother’s love for her children, but it’s my most heartbreaking experience as a physician.
One heart breaking incident that Dr Linda Girgis encountered has not only left her with a memory for a lifetime, but has also impacted her choice of specialization.
When I was a 4th year medical student on a surgery rotation, there was a code 22 in the hospital (child in cardiac arrest). The entire trauma team rushed to the ER to find a 2 year old who ran out in traffic and was hit by a car. He was essentially dead on arrival but we coded him for almost 45 minutes before the chief resident called the code and pronounced him dead.
Then, he walked out to give the news to the father. The father left out the most horrifying sobs I ever heard or wish to hear again. He was a big athletic man who just fell on his knees sobbing. The team met after that and every single person cried. All of us asked why? But, we were on call and had no choice but to continue with our duties.
That was the night I decided I could not be a pediatrician. It has been twenty years since that day, and I can still remember exactly how that little boy’s face looked and how his father’s sobs sounded. Sometimes, those memories help me go on when I feel like quitting as it reminds me of why I am a doctor.
Please share your heartbreaking experience
Success and failure are part of every profession, but in medicine they often equate with life and death. It is evident from these stories that it becomes unbearably painful when a baby or a child is involved. What has been your most heartbreaking experience as a doctor? We would love to hear your story as well. Please share.