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Listen With Your Heart

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

I sat with my patient Tom yesterday. He was here for the third time this year for a torn rotator cuff that we had managed conservatively for the last 4 years. Tom has been a caretaker for his sick wife for roughly the last decade. When we first identified his shoulder injury, he was determined not to have any downtime, and not to treat it surgically. Partly through his effort, and partly through the benefit of physical therapy, and some steroid injections, he was able to recover.

 Tom lost his wife five months ago to cancer. We always talked about how well she was doing and that the chemotherapy was working. Until it wasn’t.  She had such a rapid and sharp downtrend that no one had time to predict how quickly she would pass. There was no time for Tom to make peace with the situation  and he was not prepared. Perhaps I was a  little slow on the uptake, but this time I could see his sadness, I could see the beginning of his depression, and most alarmingly I could see that he had given up.

The thing that makes human beings special, that makes them so unique,  is the ability for us to feel compassion for another person’s loss even if we are not in any way involved. Something told me that Tom needed me at that moment to say more than your shoulder looks OK. He needed someone to sit with him and listen. And he needed someone to remind him of his worth.

I took a deep breath, and I said:

“Tom, The world needs you. Your family needs you. And I need you.”

He looked at me questioningly. I am no grief counselor. I am not someone who can easily tease apart pain and loss and provide coping skills. But I have walked with Death and held his hand for far longer than anyone should. So I told Tom about my experience about what it feels like to be dead in spirit, to lay in your deathbed just wishing for it to END. I told him all I ever wanted was for my family to be happy, for my parents to see my son get married, my wife to succeed in her businesses, to watch my niece and nephew grow up and become something.

Tom responded by opening up. He has sisters with children and they have children. He has two sons and he hasn’t seen his grandchildren in a while. He has family in Philadelphia, but he has never been to Philadelphia. He was talking to one of his grand children who is going to medical school, and she is struggling And you could see that he wanted to help her but didn’t know how. He was sharing with me. And through the sharing of our lives I could feel us sharing our strengths, his experience and my fortitude.

Tom loved his wife for 62 years and it isn’t going to get better soon. But I told him no one knows her, but you. You have the stories of her life wrapped up in your mind. Gift them to your children to your grandchildren and to the world. Perhaps you will always feel the pain of her loss, but through your family, she will live forever and by degrees you will dissipate your pain.

For the first time he smiled. And as we said goodbye, he came in for an awkward handshake which I refused. I hugged Tom and he hugged me back…fiercely.  He thanked me profusely and I smiled and I said:

“Tom you are worthy. Worthy of living. And you are needed.”

Everything has a purpose and everything has a place. There is no experience that has no value, only experiences that you don’t understand yet how you will use them. Today I am grateful that my past illness served a greater purpose than I could have imagined.

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