The great writer John McPhee’s article in the February 8th issue of the New Yorker is primarily about his experiences fishing for pickerel in New Hampshire, but the subtext is his connecting to his dying father who is in the hospital after a severe stroke.
While the article is extremely warm and heart-felt, two short sections stand out because of his visceral reaction to his father’s doctor:
“His room had a south-facing window. My mother, in a flood of light, eighty-seven, looked even smaller than she was, and space was limited around her, with me, my brother, my sister and a young doctor together beside the bed. I was startled by the candor of the doctor. He said the patient did not have many days to live, and he described cerebral events in language only the patient, among those present, was equipped to understand. But the patient did not understand: ‘He can’t comprehend anything, his eyes follow nothing, he is finished,’ the doctor said, and we should prepare ourselves.
“Wordlessly, I said to him, ‘You fucking bastard.’ My father may not have been comprehending, but my mother was right there before him, and his words, like everything else in those hours, were falling upon her and dripping away like rain. Nor did he stop. There was more of the same, until he finally excused himself to continue on his rounds.”
“The young doctor returned, twenty-four hours exactly after his earlier visit. He touched the patient with his fingers and steel, and qualified for compensation. [emphasis added] He said there had been no change and not to expect any; the patient’s comprehension would not improve. He went on as had the day before. My father, across the years, had always seemed incapable of speaking critically of another doctor, perhaps in a paradoxical way, because he had been present in the operating room where the mistake of another doctor had ended his mother’s life. Even-tempered as he generally appeared to be, my father could blow his top, and I wondered, with respect to his profession, to what extent this situation would be testing him he were able to listen, comprehend, and speak.”
To be fair – and maybe overly fair – perhaps the physician taking care of Dr. McPhee was focused on the outcome of his patient, and realizing that improvement would not happen wanted to set realistic expectations for the family. However, what is clear from John McPhee’s prose is that the physician didn’t see the patient’s family within his care continuum. He didn’t treat them as if they were his patients who needed his compassion. If he had, he might have realized that while he – and medical science – could do very little for Dr. McPhee after his stroke, there was a lot that he could do for the family by being more compassionate and empathetic in his interactions as he was explaining the diagnosis and prognosis.
In addition – although John McPhee doesn’t mention it in his article – hopefully there were other components of the care team besides the one physician, since a well-coordinated care team should provide additional information and support to the family. It would be unrealistic for a single physician to provide all the information and support to a critically ill patient and their family – even when there is no hope and no interventions to ease the patient’s condition. Expecting a physician to do all this alone is like asking an NBA basketball player to go 1 on 5 against another team. Even the greats of Chamberlain, Jordan, or Bryant wouldn’t have been able to do that.
I applaud John McPhee for his great writing and for including his direct feelings about his encounter with the medical care system. His article would be good reading for clinicians in training and practice since it so deeply illuminates how patients and their families can view clinicians, their words, and how they deliver them. Similarly, his article would be a great reading for students and policy makers interested in the relationships and communications between clinicians and patients – and their families – as well as for those interested in improving compassionate caregiving.