Death is a given in medicine. That truism, though, doesn’t offer much comfort when it’s your patient who has died. I was in clinic the other day, showing the ropes to a fresh-faced medical student, when a nurse leaned toward me and whispered that L.W. had died over the holiday weekend.
It was like a sucker-punch in the gut, the raw rope of grief lashing out unexpectedly. L.W. had been an employee of our hospital for 30 years. Two years ago, when we were working together on the cardiac ward, she asked me shyly if I could be her doctor. “I haven’t had a checkup in years,” she confessed, “but I’m planning to retire next year when I turn 55, so I should probably do one now.”
L.W. was a healthy, energetic woman, coming to me for a routine visit. The path to colon cancer was jarringly swift and wholly unexpected. And now her death — in the midst of treatment for the cancer — was even more unexpected. An autopsy was not done, so I couldn’t know if her death was directly from the cancer, from one of the complications of cancer, from one of the complications of treatments for cancer, or from some other random horrible event.